Serious questions need to be asked about the likely level of future demand growth for oil and auto sales in Emerging Markets (EMs), as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog
Oil market volatility has reached near-record levels in H1 this year, as the first chart shows. It has averaged nearly 10% a week, and over the past quarter-century its three-month average has only been higher during the Gulf War and the subprime crash. Yet there have been no major supply disruptions or financial shocks to justify such a dramatic increase. Instead, July’s report from the International Energy Agency reminds us that:
“OECD commercial inventories built by 13.5 mb in May to end the month at a record 3 074 mb. Preliminary information for June suggests that OECD stocks added a further 0.9 mb while floating storage has continued to build, reaching its highest level since 2009.”
The problem is two-fold:
- Financial markets are now reaching the hard part of the Great Unwinding of policymaker stimulus, which began nearly two years ago as we have described in beyondbrics. Their key role of price discovery has been subverted by the tidal waves of central bank liquidity, and today’s elevated levels of volatility suggest it will be a difficult journey back, as markets return to valuations that are instead based on the fundamentals of supply and demand
- Life has not stood still over the past few years, and so there will also be plenty of surprises along the way as players are forced to recognise that many of their core assumptions are either untrue or out of date. The excitement of the 2009–2014 stimulus period, for example, seems to have led many investors to ignore the 2012 warning from then Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi that “Oil demand will peak way ahead of supply”. Today, they are being forced to play catch-up, as they digest the implications of Saudi Arabia’s new National Transformation Plan. Yet its core objective that “Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil”, is clearly linked to Naimi’s earlier insight.
New data from the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) confirms Saudi Arabia’s need for a change of direction, as the chart shows. The EIA’s reference case scenario out to 2040 suggests that US energy consumption will increasingly be led by natural gas and renewables, and notes that
“Petroleum consumption remains similar to current levels through 2040, as fuel economy improvements and other changes in the transportation sector offset growth in population and travel.”
Nor are these trends confined to the US. As Nick Butler has argued recently in the FT, conventional forecasts of ever-rising energy demand driven by rising populations and rising prosperity in the EMs appear far too simplistic. Instead, as he notes: “Demand has stagnated and in some areas is falling.”
Developments in the transportation sector (the largest source of petroleum demand), confirm that a paradigm shift is now underway along the whole value chain. As Dan Amman, president of GM, highlighted in the FT last year, when discussing the value proposition for city dwellers of buying a new car:
“It’s the last thing you should do because you buy this asset, it depreciates fairly rapidly, you use it 3 per cent of the time, and you pay a vast amount of money to park it for the other 97 per cent of the time.”
China’s slowdown confirms the depth of the challenge to conventional thinking about future auto and oil demand. Many still assume that EMs will account for two thirds of global auto sales by 2020, and underpin future oil demand growth. But the China-induced collapse of commodity export revenues in formerly high-flying economies such as Brazil and Russia means that this rosy scenario is also in need of major revision.
As noted last November, Brazil was temporarily the world’s fourth largest auto market in 2013, whilst Russia was forecast to reach fifth position by 2020. But as the chart of H1 sales in the BRIC countries shows, volumes in both countries have almost halved since then. China’s own sales growth is also slowing, as the government’s need to combat pollution has led it to focus on implementing policies aimed at boosting the role of car sharing and public transport – while its focus on electric vehicles is a further downside for future oil demand.
As we move into H2, it therefore appears that the fundamental assumptions behind the $3tn of energy market debt – $100/bbl oil and double-digit economic growth in China – are looking increasingly implausible. And given oil’s pivotal role in the global economy, today’s near-record levels of oil market volatility may also be trying to warn us that wider problems lie ahead for financial and energy markets.
The warnings keep coming about the underlying health of the US auto market. But, as with the subprime housing crisis, nobody wants to listen:
- Last October, the US Comptroller of the Currency warned that some activity “in auto loans reminds me of what happened in mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the crisis“
- Yet auto lending is now more than 10% of total retail lending, and the banks are still busy repackaging them for sale as securities to investors desperate for yield
There are 2 parts to the story, as the charts above show, both from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ):
- Auto leasing is now at record levels at 1/3rd of total car loans, compared to pre-crisis levels of one in five
- Manufacturers subsidise these deals to make them attractive – currently by an average of $6432
- These lease incentives have been rising sharply, and are up 8% versus 2015 and 29% versus 2009
- Auto loans are also now at record levels, close to $1tn, with 20% going to subprime borrowers
- Issuance of bonds backed by subprime loans is up 25% from 2014, and these are already going sour
- 12% of loans in bonds only issued in November were already overdue by February
Of course, everyone insists that the Comptroller is wrong to be worried, just as they said the housing market was in great shape – until it collapsed. But warning signs are everywhere, if one wants to look. Delinquency rates on subprime loans packaged over the past 5 years are already over 5% – and that is with an improving jobs market.
The problem is that loans are being made to people with very low credit scores, or even no credit scores. And they are being asked to pay interest rates of around 20%. This is clearly unsustainable, and highlights how the auto industry is gradually running out of potential new customers – just as happened with housing.
At the same time, manufacturer inventories are rising, up to around 90 days for Ford and Fiat Chrysler, whilst overall incentives have risen to 10.6% of revenue. Ford’s car inventory is 38% above its normal level at this time of year, despite it having boosted lower-margin rental car deliveries (adding 7% to its total volume).
As Credit Suisse note, auto makers will soon have to cut production, as their current sales strategies are running out of road. They expect a 6% cutback from Q2, meaning that 2016 production would be flat versus 2015. But this may well prove too optimistic.
The reason is that nearly 9 out of 10 new cars are currently financed:
- Loans are typically 6 years, so even buyers from 2012 won’t return to the showroom till 2018
- Lease terms are typically 3 years, meaning 2016 will see large numbers low mileage cars in the used car market
Used cars are therefore going to have a very attractive value proposition for the ordinary buyer, as their average mileage is currently back to 2002 levels:
- 3.1m cars come off lease this year, a 20% increase versus 2015, followed by 3.6m in 2017 and 4m in 2018
- These used car sales will cannibalise new car sales, pushing down prices and volumes
- Price wars are therefore almost inevitable over the next 18 months, and lenders will start to lose serious money
The industry has been here twice before, as the WSJ notes – and both times the story ended very badly, with lending losses running into the billions of dollars:
“The auto industry expanded the use of leasing in the mid-1990s, helping to fuel retail sales of new vehicles. Eventually, a glut of off-lease cars sent resale values down and auto lenders who had bet residuals would remain high ended up racking up billions of dollars in losses, having to sell the cars for much less than they anticipated.
“Many major banks exited leasing the early 2000s, but the practice resumed later in the decade. Lenders saw another leasing crash late last decade when resale values plummeted amid a steep rise in gasoline prices and low demand.”
Of course, all those making short-term bonuses from selling the loans and leases, or repackaging them for sale to investors, naturally claim that everything is fine. But the rest of us know what to expect.
Past experience is normally a good guide to the future outlook.
Something strange is happening in the European auto market, as the above chart from the industry association shows:
- Normally there are seasonal patterns, with March seeing the highest sales of the year
- But the trend of increase or decline is normally fairly stable in either direction
- This year, however, both March and now June have shown bumper percentage increases
- March was up 10.6%, well above the rest of Q1: June was up 14.6%, again well above the rest of Q2
It seems unlikely that seasonal patterns have suddenly changed quite so much, especially as March has always been a strong month.
Instead, it seems more likely that dealers are self-registering new cars in order to meet quarterly sales targets from the manufacturers. Thus the Financial Times reports that in reality UK sales are actually flat or falling – even though 7% more cars were registered as sold in H1 2015 versus 2014. It note:
- “More than a quarter of registrations in June came on the last day of the month
- “As many as half the registrations were being recorded in the final four days of the month as dealers push to meet targets
- “(These are) so-called self-registrations, where dealers sell the cars to themselves to meet incentive targets from manufacturers. The cars are typically held for 90 days and then sold on as used vehicles.”
Estimates for UK self-registration suggest it now accounts for at least 11% of total UK sales, and higher percentages in other key markets such as Germany. And this is despite average discounts in Germany now reaching 20%.
Leading manufacturers, of course, know that this is simply putting a sticking-plaster on the problem. Ford, GM and BMW are all now pushing hard into the car-sharing market, even though they know this will reduce their overall sales:
- Opel (part of GM) will offer “car sharing for everyone” via a dedicated Opel app on its CarUnity programme
- From next year, BMW will allow Mini buyers to rent their car via its DriveNow network in London and in the US
- Ford are allowing 12k London customers to rent their cars via peer-to-peer platform easyCar Club
As GM’s president said last month about owning a car in a city:
“It’s the last thing you should do because you buy this asset, it depreciates fairly rapidly, you use it 3 per cent of the time, and you pay a vast amount of money to park it for the other 97 per cent of the time”.
Auto manufacturers, unlike car dealers, have alternatives when it comes to confronting the challenge of car-sharing. Smart ones will realise that increasing numbers of people are no longer interested in owning cars. And so instead, they will focus on developing new income streams based on the megatrend of mobility.
May was “another fantastic month for US auto sales”. Or, it took the industry “one month closer to an inevitable downturn”. All depends on which analyst you talk to:
- Ward’s Autos called May’s sales the best since July 2005
- LMC Automotive suggested growth rates were slowing, and could possibly even contract next year
It also depends on how many questions you ask.
The headline numbers are clearly good. And they are not being achieved by major discounting, which was the position last year. Then, average incentives had hit $2633 in February, and headed higher into the peak spring selling season.
But look a little deeper, and problems quickly emerge. Prices in the used car market have begun to fall, with those for some “near-new” compact vehicles down 2.8%, and midsize values also weakening. The reason is better availability, as buyers trade-in used cars for new leases.
The US Federal Reserve’s cheap credit policy has meant that 4 out of 5 auto sales are now bought with credit or leased. Effectively, therefore, it is helping to grow the “sharing economy”, where drivers no longer feel the need to actually own the vehicle they drive.
This has good and bad results. In the short-term, it means automakers can increase prices and margins, and still make sales as the cost is spread over a longer period. But in the medium-term, it means they must expect to see lower sales in future years. The reason is simply that lease terms have been rising to unheard-of levels.
The average US auto loan is now at 69.7 months, which means it will be 2021 before the buyer comes to the end of the loan period. And as the chart shows, these changes in the market are challenging the dominance of the “Big 4′ US manufacturers:
- Their combined share of the total market is now just 60%, well down from the 73% seen in Q2 2005
- GM’s share is down at 18% versus 32% then (blue); Ford has slipped to 15% from 18% (green)
- Toyota has recovered to 15% after its recalls (purple); FiatChrysler has slipped to 12% from 15% (red)
Volkswagen highlights the pressure they are under. With an ageing fleet line-up, it is now forced to offer its Jetta model on a lease costing just $39/month in San Jose California, or between $89 – $99/month more generally. You could end up paying more per month for some mobile phone packages.
And, of course, there is always car-sharing itself. Ford have now followed BMW and Mercedes in entering the market with its new Go!Drive brand. And each shared car takes 17 privately owned vehicles off the road, according to industry estimates.
Of course, many people will still want to drive their pick-up trucks and SUVs. But there are clearly an increasing number of people who are looking for new ways of meeting their need for mobility. As a result, it seems likely that the US auto market will look quite different in 5 and 10 years time.
Major problems are developing in the US auto market. The critical issue is that companies have been adding capacity since 2009 on the basis that demand would return to SuperCycle levels. But it hasn’t.
The result is that the mass market has become more and more competitive. Only sales into the high margin luxury/pickup segments are actually making a respectable profit, as Bloomberg has noted:
“There is no vehicle type more important to the Detroit Three than pickups. They generate $8,000 to $10,000 in gross profits per vehicle and still produce most of their automotive income, according to Morgan Stanley.”
In turn, this means that financing deals have become critical to maintaining sales. Today, an astonishing 85% of new car sales and 54% of used car sales are being either financed or leased. As analysts Edmunds.com note:
“Buyers have been able to secure low financing deals and have responded to lease offers in record numbers.”
Yet despite these offers, as the chart shows, total sales in the year to September are only up 5% this year versus 2013. And as Ford’s chief economist warned:
“We are reaching a point where the rate of growth is beginning to moderate. We are getting closer to a likely plateau.”
The reason is that companies have already pushed the boundaries as far as possible. Loans to ‘deep subprime buyers’ (those with credit scores below 550), have been the main driver for recent sales growth, along with the increase in lending term. Deep subprime loans jumped 13% in Q2, up 770k, compared to 5% overall loan growth.
THE VOLUME MARKET IS OVER-SUPPLIED AND INTENSELY COMPETITIVE
The detail of the incentive programmes highlights the intensely competitive state of the market. Honda have increased their incentives by 41% since September 2013, Nissan by 26%, Toyota by 23%, Fiat-Chrysler by 16%. Only Hyundai has actually reduced spending.
At the same time, they have increasingly had to offer long-term loans to those buying the higher-priced cars on which they still make money. Otherwise, buyers couldn’t afford the monthly payment:
- One in 4 auto loans now has a payment term of between 6 to 7 years – the highest ever recorded
- The average monthly payment on these loans is a record $474/month
- The average lengthy of all auto loans is also at a new record of 5 1/2 years
Of course these strategies are self-defeating. By tying buyers in for 6 years, the companies essentially miss the chance to sell them a new car before then, as the existing loan is still being paid off.
PROBLEMS ARE GROWING IN THE SUBPRIME LOAN MARKET
Even worse, however, is the growing reliance on subprime loans. The New York Times reports shows these were 27% of all auto loans in 2013, with interest rates often at 23% or more. And total subprime lending in Q1 reached $145bn.
Of course, the automakers know that these borrowers are highly likely to default. So they are increasingly forcing these buyers to install ‘starter-interrupt devices’. These are now installed in around a quarter of cars bought with subprime loans. They allow lenders to disable the car remotely, leaving the driver unable to operate their car.
As one would expect, these are increasingly leading to horror stories of car engines being turned off when payment is late by a day or two. And even worse, the NYT reports claims that engines have been turned off whilst cars are being driven on the freeway. None of this sounds like an industry which is likely to see robust growth for the next few years.
Instead it gives the impression that companies are ’scraping the barrel’, trying to achieve sales by any legal mechanism in order to boost today’s revenue. As BusinessWeek reported last year:
“Perhaps more than any other factor, easing credit has been the key to the U.S. auto recovery,” Adam Jonas, a New York-based analyst with Morgan Stanley, wrote in a note to investors last month. The rise of subprime lending back to record levels, the lengthening of loan terms and increasing credit losses are some of factors that lead Jonas to say there are “serious warning signs” for automaker’s ability to maintain pricing discipline.”
A year later, we are clearly much nearer the end of this second subprime boom. As we learnt in 2008, companies cannot create a sustainable business model by lending at sky-high rates to people who cannot afford to repay the loan.
August is a holiday month for Europe’s statisticians. So we had to wait until yesterday for a combined summary of July and August’s EU auto sales. As the chart shows, they indicate a new slowdown is underway after the more encouraging volumes at the start of the year:
- Sales were up only 5.6% in July and 2.1% in August (red square), versus 2013 (green line)
- This brought the total 2014 volume gain down to 6% versus 6.5% in H1
In the major markets, Spain’s renewed incentive programme has pushed 2014 volumes up 16% to date. The UK’s bank compensation payments means its volumes are up 10%. But without these gains, and a strong performance in Poland, total EU volumes would have shown only half the current increase.
The other 3 major markets remained weak with Italy up just 3.5%, and France only 1.6%. Germany, Europe’s largest market, saw sales actually fall 0.4% in August. And, of course, major discounts continue to be needed to drive even these volumes – German discounts now average 20% and French discounts average 18%.
RUSSIAN DOWNTURN IS ACCELERATING
Storm clouds are also rising over the important Russian market. It has become a critical market for EU manufacturers, with industry experts expecting its volume to overtake Germany by 2016. But instead, official data shows sales down 26% in August. The decline is also accelerating, after sales fell 17% in June and 23% in July.
Total sales are now down 12% in 2014 versus 2013. The industry is already forecasting a 20% decline for the full year. In turn, GM’s Opel subsidiary has announced a major restructuring at its St Petersburg plan which will cut shifts by half to just one per day. Russia had been Opel’s 3rd largest market after the UK and Germany, and CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann told the Financial Times yesterday:
“While we believe in the long term potential of Russia, there is significant immediate pressure on sales volumes and pricing while the rouble is deteriorating further . . . we are taking measures now to limit our risk and stay on course.”
Ford are also reversing course. They had been aggressively expanding their Russian JV, but then announced in July that they were writing down their entire $329m investment in the company.
Developments in W Europe and Russia are just another example of the way that the world is moving into a New Normal of increased volatility and lower demand growth. Suppliers and investors who believed industry forecasts of steady growth are now having to reverse course, just like GM and Ford.
And the situation may well get worse, not better, if Russia implements its threat to ban Western car imports.
They also confirm it is foolhardy to develop straight-line forecasts for future demand. One leading analyst had forecast Russian auto volumes would increase a steady 6%/year, with 2020 volume reaching 4.4 million. Instead, on current trends, they could be half this level by the end of 2014, and still in decline.
As the blog will discuss tomorrow, the New Normal requires companies to challenge internal groupthink. The example of GM and Ford in Russia highlights the growing danger of instead indulging in wishful thinking about future demand levels.