The agony of winning, but not beating the spread

March U.S. auto sales rose 24 percent, so everybody's happy, right?

Not necessarily. You see, analysts expected more.

They forecast seasonally adjusted annualized selling rates of 12 million, maybe more.

So a 11.7 million SAAR is (heavy sigh here), kinda disappointing.

And it ruins the narrative of a happy story.

See, 12 million would be the best SAAR since … (drumroll, please, while we all discard the clunker spike of August 2009) … September 2008. We all remember that month, don't we? That's when a bad sales year fell off the cliff.

So if the SAAR hit 12 million, the story would have been that we climbed back out of the hole. We would have at least returned to that lousy spot where we stood before we tumbled down that cliff. Now, the SAAR isn't even higher than last December.

We have to wait longer to party.

It's the same curse as favored sports teams that win the game, but not by enough to cover the point spread. Folks beating on the home team lose. The victory doesn't taste as sweet.

As auto industry observers, we don't have cash bet on the industry's point spread, but we're invested. So as spiff-driven sales started to fade toward the end of the month, we found ourselves as tense as fans of Enormous State watching the game against Hapless U turn into a squeaker.

Put the first string back in.

Let's run up the score.