While the broad equity markets have suffered steep losses since the start of 2016, few sectors outside of energy and commodities have been gutted like the automobile industry. Virtually all of the major auto stocks have been hit hard since the January opener, bringing into question the stability of the consumer at large. After all, with gas prices hitting record lows, shouldn’t this boost car sales — especially the ever-popular SUV and light-truck models? As it turns out, not everything in the markets is so cut-and-dry.
Let’s talk cheap gas prices first. Year-to-date, the international oil benchmark Brent Crude is down nearly -12.5%. The domestic index West Texas Intermediate took an even sharper dive, hitting red ink by -13.3%. Both indices are trading at prices technically considered critical — should prices continue to be this deflated throughout the year, we could see many oil companies and even national economies falter.
In theory, this should be wonderful news for drivers, and it is — to some extent. As Bloomberg and several other business media outlets have reported, the savings at the pump are trickling into discretionary spending such as take-out food. But does this modest lift in consumerism translate into bigger ticket purchases, such as new or used cars?
The data doesn’t suggest that. While 2015 was a record-breaking year for car sales, there is no hard evidence linking cheap gas prices driving those sales. What we can safely assume is the obvious — those that bought cars already planned to buy them, and cheaper gas was merely a bonus.
We also know that past results is not necessarily an indicator of future performance. Some car companies, such as the poster-child of innovation Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA), managed to do fairly well in 2015. However, in 2016, TSLA shares are crashing — and crashing hard. That’s fairly problematic, given that the company naturally caters to high-end clientele. If a “rich company” is feeling the heat, how much more so do the companies that target the middle-class?
The new year just hasn’t brought the charm. General Motors Co. (NYSE:GM) is down. Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE:TM) is down. Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) is down. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE:FCAU) is down. Even iconic Ferrari (NYSE:RACE) is sinking in the red. Outside of Fiat Chrysler, Ferrari is taking the steepest loss with a -21% YTD performance. When it comes to cars, everybody from the poor to the rich are taking it in the mouth.
Blame the poor guidance, as Wall Street is keen on doing. They don’t like corporate forecasts to drop, and will punish such actions with their own analyst downgrades. But what is there to do? Lie?
Sometimes, not even the greatest spin-doctor can weave a tale convincing enough to overlook the obvious.