The domestic auto industry reported November vehicle sales yesterday. The numbers were very good. But most of the (negative) media attention centered on the elevated level of inventories–about three months worth of sales–on dealer lots. Yes, that may eventually be a worry, but I don’t think it’s the right way to look at the current situation.
The auto news also gives me the occasion to write about the balancing act every manufacturer and retailer faces in deciding how much inventory to have.
the simplified story
There’s an often convoluted dance between supplier and distributor/end user about return policy, payment terms, co-op advertising…in negotiating over how much of a product to buy and at what price. Nevertheless, the decision about how much inventory to hold ultimately comes down to weighing two opposing risks:
—stockout costs. This is when your brilliant national advertising campaign, your sterling reputation for high quality and service–or sometimes just random factors–prompt a potential customer to either go online or enter a physical store with the intention of buying an item.
You’re out of stock. You try to interest him in a substitute, or promise to have the item tomorrow. He says thanks, leaves and buys the item somewhere else.
You’ve lost a sale. And the person you’ve disappointed is at least marginally less likely to have you first on his list next time he’s shopping.
That’s stockout costs.
—inventory holding costs are much more straightforwardly quantifiable.
There are three main factors:
-financing costs, which in today’s world are negligible;
-liquidity risk of having your capital tied up in inventory rather than in cash during the time it tales you to make a sale; and
-the possibility that the items either become obsolete, go out of style, or–like fresh food–exceed their shelf life before they can be sold. Then your asset has become a wirtedown.
(In the stock market, there are always complications.)
In good times, companies want to hold more inventory (because they see stockout as a greater risk than holding costs); in bad times sentiment reverses and everyone wants to hold as little as possible.
If prices are rising, procurement managers see the chance to make windfall profits and order more than they need; if prices are falling–as is chronically the case in industries like consumer electronics–inventories are kept trimmed to the bone (except in really good times, when everyone throws caution to the winds).
In industries with low fixed, high variable costs, manufacturers see no percentage in upping production volumes. In industries like autos, with high fixed costs and therefore tons of potential operating leverage, there’s a tremendous incentive to make extra units once a firm reaches breakeven.
The competitive structure of an industry doesn’t change the nature of inventory risk, but it can change who it is who’s assuming them. This may not always be obvious from even a detailed study of the working capital sections of the balance sheet. If a manufacturer were to have a policy of unlimited returns (that would be crazy, but let’s just suppose), then it–not anyone farther down the distribution chain–would ultimately be responsible for any unsold goods.