auto inventories

I’m not a big fan of the auto manufacturing industry.  It’s highly cyclical and capital-intensive.  It’s plagued by chronic overcapacity and generally terrible management.  Much of the technology involved in making cars has migrated over the years to component manufacturers, making it harder for brands to differentiate themselves from one another.  On top of that, the industry employs so many people that national politics can play a large role in how it fares.  Just look at GM.

Despite all this, the industry does have its moments.  I’ll confess to, at one time or another, having owned shares in Peugeot, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Porsche, VW, Hyundai and BYD–plus bunches of parts manufacturers and the occasional regional Asian car distributor. Today I even own a tiny position in Tesla–thanks to the encouragement of my younger son and one of my brothers-in-law (I haven’t done any of the serious work, so this is not an endorsement of TSLA.  The Wall Street consensus for TSLA earnings in the year ahead is $1.50, meaning that the stock is trading at 100x.  That estimate is doubtless wildly wrong.  The investment issue is whether it’s too high or too low.)

Let me switch from incipient anti-commodity industry diatribery to the current auto inventory situation in the US.  I think I know what’s going on.

Take Ford (F).

During 3Q13, US wholesale (i.e., sales to car dealers) unit car volume was up by 16%, or about 216,00 cars, year-on-year for F.  That increase pushed operating profit from auto sales up by a whopping 61%, after subtracting special charges from this year’s figure (the relevant information is on page 51 of the 10-Q).

Unit profit per car averaged $1,354 during 3Q12, $1,877 per car in 3Q13.  Yes, a difference  …but what’s $500?  Where’s the operating leverage?

Look at the data in a different way.  If we ask what the unit profit was on the incremental volume in 2013, the answer is $5,100 a pop.  In other words, once F’s sales covered fixed costs and reached 2012 production levels, the unit profit on anything above that was about 4x the average.  This is where the operating leverage is.

This implies

…the loss incurred if a customer leaves a Ford dealership without buying because the car he wants isn’t in stock is much higher than normal for F today.  That customer isn’t going to come back; he’s probably going to buy a Honda instead.  Given that the cost of financing dealer inventory is basically zero, it makes no sense, either for F or for the dealer, to skimp on what’s on the dealers’ lots.  Especially as early in the model year as we are now.

Yes, there may be trouble down the road from too-large inventories at some point.  But if the industry dials back production from the current 90% of capacity to, say, 80%, maybe there won’t be.  For F at least, the cost of some manufacturing downtime early next year will likely be dwarfed by the extra profits being achieved at present.

That’s what the media is missing.  On the other hand, that information isn’t sound-byty, and it’s on page 51 of a 79-page, small-print 10-Q.  No reporter or academic is going to bother looking that deeply.

retailers and inventories

I want to write about prospects for retail during the upcoming holiday selling season in the United States.  I’m going to do it in two posts.

In today’s I’ll cover the general issue–how retailers figure out how much inventory to have on the shelves.  In Sunday’s I’ll cover what activity at the major ports in China and on the west coast of the US is saying about what retailers are doing this year.

the inventory problem

In its simplest form, the ground-level decision retailers make about how much stuff to buy to stock their shelves can be framed in terms of the two possible unfavorable outcomes.

They are:

–stock-out costs, meaning the opportunity loss a retailer suffers if a potential customer comes in to buy a specific item and is willing to pay full price, only to find that the store has run out.

This is a tragedy.

There’s some chance a good salesperson can persuade the customer to buy a substitute item that is available.  More likely, the customer goes elsewhere and the chance to grab a 100% markup over cost of goods is lost.

On top of that, the rival that makes the sale has a shot at becoming the customer’s first stop from that point on.  Also, too many empty shelves can create a “don’t go there” atmosphere akin to walking down a dark street in a bad neighborhood at night.  And a thoughtful shopper might construe the absence of certain product lines as a statement by their manufacturer about the retailer’s (low) status or creditworthiness.


The other side of the coin is:

excess inventory, especially of seasonal items.  In this case, the retailer has the problem of how to dispose of the extra merchandise.

Three reasons for this:

the value of the inventory is eroding as time passes,

the merchant wants to recover the cash he sunk into buying the merchandise, and

he wants to create shelf space for more salable items.

Some things may be returnable to the manufacturer, whether the sales agreement, strictly speaking, allows this possibility or not.  Most, though, will go through a process of markdowns in the store, followed by sale (maybe even at a loss) into the extensive closeout network that crisscrosses the US.

Although the reality is that few retail purchases in the US are at full price, customers are put off if a store always looks like a fire sale is happening.  Branded goods manufacturers may also become very upset if retailers sell their wares at a discount or if they find their merchandise floating around in closeoutland.

True, some manufacturers are vertically integrated.  That is, they maintain retail doors themselves, as well as wholesale warehouses to serve both affiliated and non-affiliated customers.  In such cases, retailers can operate just-in-time by ordering periodically from local distribution centers.  This doesn’t eliminate the inventory planning issue, however; it just shifts it from the retailer to the distributor.  The tradeoff for the retailer is that he doesn’t capture the full markup from the factory door (as a rough rule of thumb, maybe half the total markup on any item goes to the wholesaler).

Over the past couple of decades, department stores, which still serve many of the needs of average Americans, have increasingly turned to house brands, with merchandise ordered more or less directly from the (usually Asian) manufacturer.  They may use an intermediary like Hong Kong-based Li and Fung for ordering or for design services, or they may go straight to the factory themselves.  In either case, their decision has been to increase their inventory-related risk in order to generate higher margins.

taking retail’s temperature

Generally speaking, small, lightweight, high-value items like laptops, tablets or cellphones, are delivered from Asia to the US by air. For most merchandise, however, speed isn’t essential and airfreight costs from Asia would take too big a chunk out of profits.  So this stuff travels by ship from, say, Hong Kong to California, and then by truck or rail to a distribution center.

Anyone can get a reasonable idea–with some caveats–of how retailers see the holiday season shaping up by monitoring the publicly available data on activity in the major import-export ports.

The message the ports are delivering is that despite relatively robust retail sales in recent months in the US, retailers are planning on at best a flattish holiday selling season.

More about this on Sunday.