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Wholesale auto industry enjoys an uptick

SAN FRANCISCO - Things are slowly getting back to normal in the auction business following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

ADESA Corp., which saw a 15 percent to 20 percent drop in business in the days immediately following the attack, said dealer attendance is near pre-Sept. 11 numbers.

Wholesale prices also are holding steady, say auto and auction execs.

But a new fear loomed over the National Auto Auction Association's 53rd annual convention in San Francisco Oct. 3-6: Popular 0 percent financing programs, saving customers more than $2,000 per vehicle, are likely to depress used-car prices of the same models.

Jim Hallett, CEO of ADESA Corp., expects prices of the same model rental car (offered at auction) to fall $1,500.

"I wouldn't say we're seeing fewer dealers in the lanes, I'd say they are more cautious," Hallett said. "With 0 percent financing, dealers are making price adjustments in their own minds.

"If they can't buy the car for what they believe is the right money, they're keeping their hands in their pockets."

Added Dean Eisner, Manheim Auctions CEO: "We might be in a superficial environment," adding that the industry will be better able to gauge wholesale prices once the 0 percent programs end.

Problems surface quickly

The problems plaguing the remarketing industry after the attacks surfaced quickly.

The rental car business plunged about 50 percent from year-ago levels, according to Moody's Investors Service.

Worried that they had too many vehicles for too few customers, some rental car companies began selling their program cars back to the factories before their regular schedule.

Some vehicles that were expected in November were returned in September, said Jeff Heichel, General Motors GM Certified Used/Remarketing director. That created more vehicles available at auction when there were fewer dealers bidding on them.

To try to shore up wholesale prices, some manufacturers, including GM and DaimlerChrysler, engaged in more "no-selling" - declining to sell a vehicle that does not attract an expected price.

A vehicle that does not sell is offered at the company's next scheduled auction, the companies said.

"We are holding vehicles that are not drawing bids in the areas where we believe they should. To get that price, we've had to do more 'no-selling'," Heichel said.

Volume declines

Ricky Beggs, editor of Black Book, a wholesale pricing guide that records wholesale transaction prices of 45 to 50 auction facilities every week, said his research indicates wholesale prices have remained stable since mid-September. But he noticed a decline in sales volume.

GM's Heichel said the drop in wholesales business immediately after the attack was "pretty significant" but things are improving.

Said Heichel: "Things are definitely on the uptick."

You can reach Arlena Sawyers at asawyers@crain.com

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