This is the time of year for making bold predictions. But if there is one thing we learned in 2009, at least in the auto business, it's that making accurate forecasts in awful times is patently impossible.
The conventional wisdom is that the New Year can't possibly be as bad as the one just ended. But conventional wisdom took a big hit in 2009. The experts who prophesized 12 months ago about how the year would unfold were wrong in so many ways.
Even pessimistic forecasters missed the size of the downturn by at least a million units. A year ago today we knew we were in the dumper. But the consensus forecast for 2009 sales was about 2 million units higher than the market turned out to be. And that wasn't the only thing the experts got wrong.
General Motors and Chrysler did not get bogged down in Chapter 11 as widely predicted. They shot through the process quickly and with relative ease.
Cash for clunkers was figured to be a "nonevent" by some. Who knew it would bring so many people into showrooms?
The North American supply chain did not disintegrate.
The smell of bankruptcy was supposed to keep customers out of GM and Chrysler showrooms. But while the jury is still out -- especially in the case of Chrysler -- GM's year-on-year sales decline in June after filing for Chapter 11 on June 1 was roughly the same as Toyota Motor Sales'.
Indeed, Toyota did not use the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies -- and Ford Motor's vulnerability -- to ratchet up market share as had seemed sure to happen.
There are lessons to be learned from the year just concluded.
-- The federal government can have a positive impact on the auto industry. Think of the government's role in cash for clunkers, in guiding GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy and in declining to throw money at every supplier in a sector struggling with overcapacity.
-- What may seem like gimmicky incentives can attract customers if imaginative, well-timed and in tune with the nation's mood. Note Hyundai's Assurance program, which allows buyers who lose their jobs to return cars within a year of purchase.
-- Understanding your brand and fine-tuning your products and pricing could help you to defy a recession. Just ask Subaru.
-- Suppliers and dealers can be mighty resourceful. Parts makers cut costs, hunkered down and mostly survived. Dealers fought back effectively in Congress, even after thousands of dealerships had been terminated.
-- Just because buyers for cast-off brands cannot be found immediately does not mean the brands have no future. Ford took time to find new homes for Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. But the deals got done.
What matter in tough times are creativity, patience and persistence -- things that can be controlled.