ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Twenty senior industry leaders expressed cautious optimism about the economy and the automotive retail industry in White Clarke Group’s annual U.S. Auto and Equipment Survey.
The chief executive officers, directors, chairmen and president surveyed by the technology firm were optimistic about new-vehicle sales, which are on the decline but should remain among the highest on record in 2017. What has them cautious is President Donald Trump, whose communication style has them wondering if his administration can deliver on its pro-business campaign promises.
“As a result, business is falling back into cautious and hesitant state,” said Pacific Rim Capital CEO David Mirsky, noting the economic outlook was favorable following the November election. “The coarseness of our President’s communication style hasn’t helped. Even though most businesses agree with a lot of what Mr. Trump wants to do, we don’t like the way he has operated so far.”
According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, new-vehicle sales should end the year at 17.1 million units. During the first six months of 2017, the report noted, 8.4 million new cars and light trucks were sold. That’s down 2.2% from the year-ago period. Despite the decline in vehicle purchases, economic experts remain optimistic about the market.
One of the reasons is the $1.1 trillion auto finance market, which has fueled the industry’s rebound from the financial crash and recession of 2008-2009. Since then, U.S. light vehicle sales have delivered seven consecutive annual gains — the longest upward streak in decades, with sales peaking at 17.55 million new-vehicle registrations in 2016.
The concern, however, is affordability. According to Experian, the average finance amount for a new vehicle reached a record $30,621 in 2016, while the average finance amount for used also achieved new peaks at $19,329 per car. And in order to lower monthly payments, consumers are extending loan terms. In the fourth quarter of 2016, for instance, the 73- to 84-month term band rose 29% from the prior-year period.
“With the average loan amount for new and used vehicles hitting all-time highs, we are seeing the need for affordability drive consumer purchasing behavior,” said Melinda Zabritski, senior director of automotive finance for Experian Automotive. “Our latest research shows an $11,000 gap between the average loan amount on a new and used vehicle — the widest we have ever seen.”
Then there are hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which market analysts are still assessing but are believed to have damaged up to 1 million vehicles — 300,000 to 500,000 in the Houston area alone. This, analysts said in the report, could lead to a substantial increase in demand for new vehicles. It may also help with the oversupply problem in the used-vehicle space, which remains robust.
As for the U.S. economy, the report noted it grew at an annualized rate of 2.6% during the second quarter, with some financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, estimating it grew 3%. On the global stage, the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that the global economy will expand by 3.5% this year.
The report also looked at regulatory threats, specifically those posed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Since opening its doors in 2011, the regulator, which oversees banks, credit card companies, and lenders, has returned about $12 billion in restitution to almost 30 million Americans. If Trump delivers on his promise of less regulation, however, the bureau faces a reduced role in 2018, the report noted.
The report touched on several other topics, including the impact of mobility on ownership models, the equipment finance market, new technology, and the impact of rising interest rates. However, most economic outlooks seemed to rest on the ability of a Republican White House and Republican Congress to deliver on their pro-business promises.
“It’s becoming clearer now that there is dysfunction in the White House and the Republican Party is fractured, so all early attempts to pass meaningful economic legislation have failed,” said Adam Warner, president of Key Equipment Finance. “Business confidence has eroded and will likely continue to be challenged in 2018.”