2021: The Year of the Used Car

What Does This Mean for Dealers and Consumers?

Used Vehicles

2021 was an interesting year for many businesses, and it was certainly interesting for auto dealers. While automotive retailing may be an attractive space for purely financial investors, many dealerships are owned by the same folks that run the business. So while inventory shortages and other headwinds played a role in heightened profits in 2021, the return on investment achieved came with many operational headaches.

Just about everyone we’ve talked to acknowledges that current performance is not indicative of ongoing expectations. The question has largely been focused on when we’ll revert to the mean, but this post touches on what things will look like when we return to a more “normal” operating environment. Specifically, what negative equity from used car buyers in 2021 may mean for dealerships.

Used Car Prices

In a recent whitepaper, KPMG warned that used vehicle prices could fall abruptly and raise negative equity issues once new vehicle supply rebounds.  Negative equity occurs when consumers owe more on their auto loan than the vehicle is worth. We’ve all heard about a vehicle losing value once you drive it off the lot and it’s true. Compounding this problem is the expectation that values today will materially decline in a year or two which increases the likelihood of negative equity.

Negative equity occurs when consumers owe more on their auto loan than the vehicle is worth.

In April 2020, during the depths of the pandemic,  44% of trade-ins carried negative equity – more than double the amount seen a decade earlier. The average negative equity then was $5,571. A year later, vehicle prices increased significantly, but average negative equity only declined by a little more than $1,000. More importantly, the proportion of trade-ins with negative equity was relatively constant, meaning nearly half of buyers were looking at their trade-ins adding to the price of the vehicle they were looking to buy.

According to our analysis of NADA data from 2011 to 2020, used vehicle retail prices increased at a compound annual rate of 2.7%, just above the 2.6% increase for new vehicles. In 2021, used vehicle prices lurched forward faster than new vehicles. New vehicle prices increased 7.5% in the last twelve months due in part to supply shortages. Consumers who couldn’t get the new vehicle they wanted or realized they needed a car, but prices were too high, may have turned to used vehicles, whose prices increased 19.1% due to increased demand.

The ratio of used-to-new vehicle prices was 62.5% through October 2021, notably higher than the 56.5% observed in October 2020 and above the long-term average (2011 to 2020) of 57.1%. Used-to-new retail volumes were also 91.9% for the first ten months of 2021, higher than any full-year since at least 2011. Used vehicles have become increasingly important to dealers, as this figure has steadily increased from a recent low of 73.9% in 2015.

What will happen if new vehicle supply is restored and used vehicle prices crater?

As KPMG warns, what will happen if new vehicle supply is restored and used vehicle prices crater? Applying the long-term average used vehicle price appreciation of 2.7% to the $22,027 average used vehicle retail price in 2020, it would take until 2027 to reach $26,000. As of October 2021, the average retailed used vehicles cost $25,904. If used car prices revert to the long-term relationship of new car pricing (57.1% of $41,421 for new vehicles as of October ‘21), we would see a decline of 8.7%. KPMG indicated “a 20-30% plunge in used vehicles costs is within the playing cards.” This would almost certainly wipe out any consumer’s equity who elected to finance their purchase.

Consumers are able to buy more expensive cars when they get what they perceive to be a good deal on their trade-in, and higher used vehicle prices mean trade-ins are more valuable. However, this important source of cash for buyers will evaporate if used vehicle prices plunge, and negative equity just adds on to the price of a vehicle, putting pressure on how much consumers can pay up for a new vehicle. As noted previously, through April 2021, a significant number of buyers still had negative equity despite advantageous pricing on used vehicles. This could spike if prices crater.

What It Means For Dealers

Given the long life cycles of vehicles, dealership performance tends to ebb and flow with the economy. Executives of public retailers harp on the importance of touchpoints with the consumer, meaning they return to the dealership to get their car serviced. Dealers also hope customers return to their showrooms when it’s time for another vehicle, and the experience from the last purchase will likely play a big role.

If consumers are unsatisfied with their purchase because prices were elevated when they bought in 2021 and decline significantly thereafter, they may feel aggrieved and choose to go with another dealership. While this situation is largely unavoidable for most dealerships, it could have negative ramifications down the line. Consumers may also choose to hold onto their vehicles longer to not recognize the loss by trading in. While it’s unclear how this will shake out down the road, dealers will need to prepare themselves for difficult conversations.

Through the first ten months of 2021, the average dealership has already made nearly $3.4 million.

As we alluded to previously, profits are up for dealerships in 2021. According to the NADA, the average dealership earned average pre-tax profits of $1.4 million from 2011 to 2020. Average pre-tax profits reached above $2.1 million in 2020, which was the first time above $1.5 million since 2015. Through the first ten months of 2021, the average dealership has already made nearly $3.4 million with two more months to add to these totals.

The value of auto dealerships is communicated through Blue Sky values, which are based on a multiple of pre-tax earnings. While dealers aren’t likely to get a high multiple on peak earnings, we note both Blue Sky values and multiples are up since before the pandemic. However, once performance normalizes, dealerships may not be worth as much as they are now, much like the vehicles they sell. This would likely explain the record amount of M&A activity seen in 2021 with some of the largest dealer groups opting to sell.

According to the Q3 2021 Haig Report, the average franchise has a Blue Sky multiple of 5.24x and adjusted pre-tax earnings of $2.08 million for a Blue Sky value of about $10.9 million, up 61% from year-end 2019 to all-time highs. At these prices, buyers must be optimistic that the good times will continue, multiples won’t crater, and/or the new normal of profits will be higher than historical levels.

Source: Haig Partners


Haig’s estimated pre-tax earnings of $2.08 million as an ongoing figure today is about 46% below current levels based on our calculations of NADA figures. However, according to NADA, it coincidentally represents a 46% increase over the 2011-2020 average for the average dealership. While that makes the ongoing figure appear reasonable, the chip shortage universally viewed as a temporary problem is far from “normal.” Suppose current estimates of ongoing earnings end up being overly optimistic, with an increased focus on recent outperformance. In that case, the values of dealerships, like the vehicles they sell, are likely to decline.


Mercer Capital provides business valuation and financial advisory services, and our auto team helps dealers, their partners, and family members understand the value of their business. Contact a member of the Mercer Capital auto dealer team today to learn more about the value of your dealership.