As industry creeps back, America shrugs off high gas prices
John K. Teahen Jr. is senior editor of Automotive News
The first quarter is history, and it was indeed a fine three months. Total sales of 4.4 million and March deliveries of 1,669,141. A bellringer year in the making.
Just one minor problem. The figures quoted are for the first quarter of 2000, not the first quarter of 2012, and 2000 was the best sales year in the history of the U.S. auto industry with sales of 17.4 million cars and light trucks.
Comparing 2000 and 2012, quarterly sales this year were 3,467,389, down 21 percent, and March sales of 1,404,623 were down 16 percent.
So what's the point of this little exercise? The point is that the auto industry depression (that's right, DEpression, not REcession) is by no means over. It's in its fifth year and seems destined to stick around for a while.
Granted, sales have improved quite a lot from the abysmal 10.4 million of 2009; the Everything's-Coming-Up-Roses crowd is predicting 14 million this year. Maybe, maybe not.
Sales of 14 million wouldn't be bad, but they would be far short of 2007, the last and lowest of the nine consecutive 16-million sales years. So the auto industry is not bouncing back, it is creeping back, and it still has quite a ways to creep.
Ford Motor Co. profits for 2000 and 2011 are hard to compare because of extensive changes in facilities and product. Comparisons for the Chapter 11 twins are meaningless. Each was saved by massive infusions of federal dollars. Chrysler-Fiat has repaid its $17 billion bailout; GM is still partly owned by the U.S. government after a $50 billion rescue.
Each of the twins shed their common shareholders (in GM's case, about one million persons and businesses) and won relief from some of their bonded indebtedness.
They simply are not the same companies that they were a year or two years ago so financial comparisons are worthless.
Factory folks and dealers simply gushed over March sales. Jim Farley, Ford's group vice president for sales and marketing, was happy about selling 28,000 Fusion and 28,000 Focus models last month. Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, was lost in superlatives. "We did very, very, very, very well," he said. "April will be dominated by the 3 series."
"We revised our forecast to 14.5 million," said Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation. He was not alone. Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, was proud of Camry's biggest March ever, with sale of 42,567.
Gasoline at $4 a gallon has permeated the United States -- I paid $4.18 at my corner filling station earlier this month -- but where are the shouts and the whines that accompanied that development in 2008? Four years ago, $4 a gallon kicked off the current auto sales depression.
I think I know why $4 a gallon has been accepted with hardly a murmur this time -- and I don't like it. I'm afraid people know that $5-a-gallon gasoline is coming, and they are saving their griping, grumbling and gnashing of teeth for that unhappy day.
And another complaint about Big Oil: In all their advertising, all the major companies urge us to apply for their credit cards. The cards are convenient, easy to use and all that jazz, they tell us.
What they don't tell you is that they will ding you an extra six or seven cents a gallon for using the card.
No fair, gentlemen, no fair.
You can reach John K. Teahen Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.