How Inventory Shortages and Electric Vehicles May Shape the Future of Automotive Retail
Just as December is a good time to look back and reflect, January is a good time to look forward, to 2022 and beyond. When we value auto dealerships, we look back at performance in prior years because this helps to inform reasonable expectations for future performance. Prior to the pandemic, the directly preceding twelve months of performance may have been a reasonable proxy for ongoing expectations. However, throughout 2020 and 2021, discussions about when things will return to “normal” or whether we’re in the “new normal” have taken center stage.
In order to look forward, we must also consider the past, or as Shakespeare’s Antonio would say, “What is past is prologue.” In this post, we look at two key trends in 2021 (inventory shortages and electric vehicles/direct selling) and how they may inform how automotive retailing will look in the future.
How Large Used-Only Auto Retailers Are Measuring Up
As our dealer clients know, automotive retailing competition has intensified with large, well-capitalized online-only retailers getting plenty of attention. Due to imbalances between supply and demand, gross margins on both new and used vehicles have increased in 2021.
In this post, we survey gross margins for the publicly traded dealerships, in light of the current operating environment and reconsider the investment thesis put forth by the new entrants.
After a tumultuous February due to weather conditions, March SAAR has bounced back with a vengeance. March SAAR of 17.75 million units is the second-highest of all time for the month, just shy of March 2000. There are two main factors driving this increase. While the winter storms had a negative impact on February SAAR, it likely caused pent-up demand that helped drive sales in March. Beyond simple delays, flooding forced some to replace damaged vehicles. Secondly, the Biden administration passed a Covid-19 stimulus bill at the beginning of March, and $1,400 paychecks hit many Americans’ wallets. This influx of cash may have also spurred a massive increase in vehicle sales.
Blue Sky Multiples Improved in 2020 After a Rocky Start, and Buyers Weigh Multiple Years of Earnings
In this post, we present recent Blue Sky multiples along with the reporting of profitability moving from the last 12 months to the last 3 years. According to Haig Partners, buyers have historically focused on adjusted profits from the last 12 months, which has been viewed as the best indication of expectations for the next year. Throughout most of 2020, Haig’s reported Blue Sky multiples were applied to 2019 earnings as these were viewed as the best indication of a dealership’s “run rate” prior to any COVID impact. When profitability improved and uncertainty began to decline around June 2020, multiples applied on these 2019 earnings rebounded. Now into 2021, Haig reports that buyers are using a three-year average of adjusted profits from 2018 through 2020 as the best prediction of future profits.
Sales Return Quicker than SG&A Expenses, But Inventories Continue to Lag Amid Chip Shortages
As we do every quarter, we provide themes from the Q4 earnings calls as discussed by the major players in the auto industry. These trends give insight to the market that may exist for a private dealership which informs our valuation engagements.
Q3 Climate for Blue Sky Multiples, Transaction Activity, and Other Trends
In the last few weeks, Haig Partners and Kerrigan Advisors have released their Third Quarter Blue Sky Reports and J.D. Power just released its U.S. Sales Satisfaction Index. We find these reports to be timely and informative of not only where the auto dealer industry is today, but where it is headed. Through observing all of these different sources, we can achieve a well-rounded understanding of the climate surrounding the auto dealership industry. In this post, we look at a few of the trends and key takeaways discussed in these reports.
Low Supply and SG&A Reductions Lead to Record Earnings
As we do every quarter, we take a look at some of the earnings commentary from major players in the industry. These trends give insight into the market that may exist for a private dealership.
SAAR Is Reaching a Post-Pandemic High, and Pent-Up Demand Is Leading to an Expected Bounce Back of M&A Activity
In September, lightweight vehicles marked a notable accomplishment during a tumultuous year, increasing to a seasonally adjusted 16.3 million. This is a 10% pickup from August, and the fifth consecutive monthly increase as the industry is recovering from lows at the beginning of the year. M&A activity for dealerships in the first half of the year has been delayed or cancelled as uncertainty has widened the bid-ask spread. However, there is evidence of pent-up demand which could lead the second half of the year to reach record levels.
While economic recovery is still uncertain as the pandemic continues on and new relief bills are on the ropes, there are other ways outside of the box for auto dealers to show resiliency during this time and plan for economic success going forward. This includes opportunities that exist in estate planning this fall for owners of assets in the auto dealer, and all, industries. Three converging factors have this fall shaping up to be the busiest estate planning season since 2012: potentially depressed valuation of assets and businesses, historically low interest rates, and uncertainty regarding the political administration going forward.
In this post, we review Haig’s Q2 report on trends in auto retail and their impact on dealership values. We’ll also look at how Blue Sky multiples have rebounded after declines in Q1. While most brands saw a partial recovery, a return to pre-COVID multiples was largely reserved for brands with the highest multiples in their category (luxury, mid-line import, and domestic).
Consumers Seek Budget Friendly Options as Economic Struggles Continue
With a shaky economy on many people’s minds, a winner in the auto dealer industry is emerging: the used car market. With new car advertisements flooding airwaves, used cars have often been overlooked in favor of “what’s new.” We are also at fault for this, with several of our recent blog posts being centered around electric vehicles and new vehicle inventory constraints. However, used cars are stealing the spotlight.
Constrained Inventories and Improved SG&A Margins Expected to Normalize While the Future of Omnichannel Initiatives Stays Top of Mind
As expected, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust many dealerships into relying on their digital and omnichannel offerings due to complications arising from stay-at-home orders. Further government restrictions have curbed new vehicle supply as manufacturers have struggled to ramp up supply. Many dealers noted inventory shortages. However, with sales volumes significantly below the 17 million seen over the last several years, both the numerator and denominator of the days of supply statistic are declining. Lower sales mean lower inventory isn’t a deal breaker; in the short term, limited supply has led to some gross margin improvement. However, total gross profit is still significantly down due to the lower sales (combination of lower inventory and lower demand). While sales have improved sequentially as restrictions have eased, parts and service (particularly collision) have trailed in their recovery as fewer miles driven has translated into reduced demand. Analysts inquired about the potential for stay-at-home orders to be ramped back up, particularly in large states such as Texas, California, and New York, though executives largely downplayed the likelihood and the impact it would have on their businesses.
Analyzing the Timeline and Twists and Turns of a Transatlantic Merger During a Pandemic
Last week, we analyzed Asbury Automotive Group’s acquisition of Park Place, a deal scuttled by COVID-19 that came back to life under revised terms. This week, we are moving upstream to look at the merger between Fiat Chrysler (FCA) and Group PSA (manufacturer of Peugeot and Citroen) and observe the new name of the entity, the merits and hurdles of the ongoing deal, and some potential impacts on auto dealers.
A Lackluster Month, But a Move in the Right Direction
After SAAR rebounded in May, June’s results seem to pale in comparison. However, with SAAR coming in at just over 13 million, this is still an increase from May’s SAAR of 12.3 million. Sales have continued to remain below the previous year’s numbers, with June 2020 declining 20% from the same period 2019.
As we teased last month, Vroom filed an S-1 with the SEC in May enabling its initial public offering (IPO) on June 9th. The online automotive retailer priced the 21,250,000 shares at $22/share. By the end of the trading day, Vroom’s stock had increased 118% to $47.90. For perspective, the NASDAQ as a whole rose only 0.3% that day. The company positions itself as “an innovative, end-to-end platform designed to offer a better way to buy and a better way to sell used vehicles.” A press release also touted its “contact-free” nature, apparently seeking to distinguish Vroom from traditional, franchised, brick-and-mortar dealers as COVID-proof. In this post, we’ll consider Vroom’s business model compared to other online dealers, the company’s investment thesis that may have driven their spike, and see what the filing could tell us about the broader industry and the IPO market more generally.
May Vehicle Sales Supported Optimistic Predictions, But a Slow Manufacturing Rebound is Threatening to Hinder This Growth
After a devastating April SAAR, predictions for a rebound in May proved to be correct. Vehicle sales in the month jumped with SAAR increasing 38.6% to 12.2 million. However, while dealerships have been able to remain open in some capacity through online sales, manufacturing plants have not had such options. Looking forward, inventory shortages and supply chain disruptions may pose some challenges for dealerships.
COVID-19 Causes Declines in Q1, but Executives Maintain Optimism Going Forward
Auto dealers stock prices declined in the first quarter of 2020 following the broader market trend. Though many dealers saw year-over-year gains in sales and earnings in the first two months of the year, earnings calls focused on the coronavirus pandemic. Volumes have fallen across the country, though executives pointed to recent positive trends. Downturns have muddied the M&A market, and some companies don’t plan to rehire everyone that has been let go. Many praised the support of OEMs including significant incentives such as 0% financing. With dealership doors shuttered, many executives touted their online presence, though there was not a consensus on digital’s long-term place in the market.
April Showers Bring May Flowers? High Optimism Following a Historically Low April SAAR
Proliferation of stay-at-home orders and adjusting to digital sales amid the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to April SAAR declining to the lowest seasonally adjusted national sales volumes in decades. Despite the decline, there are reasons to be optimistic about dealership sales going forward.
Litigation engagements are generally very complex, consisting of many moving parts. The analogy that comes to mind is the nostalgic game of Tetris. Like the game, many clients involved in auto dealer valuation disputes also experience anxiety and stress as problems begin to pile up.
We hope you never find yourself a party to a legal dispute; however, in this post, we offer words of wisdom based upon our experience working in these valuation-related disputes. We begin with seven topics, posed as questions, that have been points of contention or common issues that have arisen in recent litigation engagements. We’ve also added two questions to consider additional issues raised during the COVID-19 crisis.
Are we witnessing a revolution in the auto industry similar to that of Blockbuster and online streaming, or simply an evolution into more tech-savvy dealerships? The current COVID-19 pandemic has auto dealers scrambling to find ways to maintain sales as stay at home orders are keeping customers from the dealership. To move vehicles off the lot, dealerships have been pushed into a new era of online car sales. While many auto dealers have only somewhat dipped their toe into the digital space, they have now been pushed off the deep end.
Auto dealers are in a unique situation. While technically categorized as consumer “discretionary” items, many people rely on their cars to navigate their busy daily lives. With activity grinding to a halt amidst stay-at-home orders, cars are tipping more towards discretionary items (despite many dealerships being deemed essential businesses).
While more practical than other expensive purchases, like a designer handbag, automobiles become less of a priority when budgets are trimmed, particularly when people are staying at home. All told, this will likely lead consumers to delay their purchases of cars, particularly those who want to peruse their options by walking a lot and test driving various makes and models.
While other retail industries have fallen prey to the “Amazon effect,” auto dealers have avoided this fate because many consumers are not yet comfortable making such a significant investment without first getting behind the wheel. However, this means sales activity is even more adversely impacted by the current environment. Consumers with disposable income are more likely to spend it on other high-end items that require less personal inspection for style and feel before buying. As we’ll discuss, this is just one of the impacts the coronavirus is having on the auto industry.
When Might Things Return to Normal?
The term “24-hour news cycle” doesn’t do justice to the rate at which new information becomes available and is consumed by people trying to understand the significant impact COVID-19 is having on all of us. Stay-at-home orders have created a huge demand shock, which is particularly harmful to a largely service-based economy. In this post, we contextualize some of the fallout that has been experienced and try to answer the question “when will things return to normal?”.
Lessons for the Auto Dealer Industry
Auto dealers are a resilient, adaptable group by nature. It’s one of the reasons many have been able to survive economic hardships or sluggish industry conditions in the past. While we haven’t witnessed the unique totality of the conditions that are present today, auto dealers can adopt some of the principles from the Great Recession to try and mitigate the challenges during the survival mode portion that we currently face.