Auto demand expected to slip into low gear for 2018

Esha Dey
Bloomberg News

Were the tepid car sales of 2017 the beginning of a new normal? Chances are, the new year will muddle the debate further.

With a flurry of policy announcements expected out of Washington in 2018 – and their potentially conflicting effects on the auto industry — overall industry sales are expected to remain flat.

Technology for self-driven cars and electric vehicles will continue to dominate the headlines for automakers and suppliers, as industry players strive to stake their claims on the fast-changing landscape. Meanwhile, car sales will remain on the “eroding plateau” trajectory for the year, with the final numbers fairly close to 2017’s expected annual sales of 17.1 million units. Which is not to say that there are no bright spots.

Auto-parts retailers are expected to have a good run in 2018 as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the corporate tax overhaul, and as more vehicles age into the “sweet spot” that triggers demand for repair parts. Auto dealers, on the other hand, may see some weakness after a few months of storm-fueled surge in demand.

Analysts are looking to a 2018 of lower sales, a cooling China market and a “narrative shift” in the industry to “technology enablers versus traditional industrials.” Here are their predictions:

Morgan Stanley, Adam Jonas:

■Expects U.S. auto sales to drop by about 5 percent to 16.5 million units

■The leasing trend in U.S. autos to continue, if not accelerate, as consumers want to avoid locking into long-term ownership of a vehicle that could experience a devaluation during a time of rapid improvement in vehicle connectivity, electrification and active safety/accident avoidance technology

■Sees scope for “far greater levels” of news flow and catalysts, as all participants in the traditional auto ecosystem look for any opportunity to educate investors on their potential to remain relevant/dominant in the new auto technologies and opportunities

■Expects 2018 to be another difficult year for the rental car industry, and for Hertz and Avis. “While management from both companies seems to understand the difficult task at hand, we do not believe that investors are being sufficiently compensated for the existential business risk”

UBS, Colin Langan:

■Lowers 2018 U.S. auto sales estimate to 17.1 million from 17.2 million to reflect the demand pull-forward resulting from the 2017 storms; expects production to rise about 2 percent, reflecting minor inventory rebuild and new capacity

■Foreign exchange will likely be a tailwind for most companies in 2018

■U.S. tax changes would lower taxes, with a potential 7 percent-11 percent cut at Ford and General Motors, and a 2 percent-4 percent cut at suppliers

■The NAFTA breakup risk should not be ignored as costs could rise 0.7 percent-5.4 percent, representing a risk to GM trucks and suppliers levered to Mexico and Canada, such as Aptiv, Delphi, Magna, Lear and Visteon

RBC, Joseph Spak:

■Seeing a narrative shift coming that will lead secular auto names to be viewed as technology enablers versus traditional industrials

■Global autos production may be lower than 2017, with China choppy and U.S. demand likely to slow; forecasts U.S. auto sales declining 1 percent to $16.9 million in 2018

■However, even if U.S. demand declines to about 16 million over the coming years, that is “still a healthy level”

■Shared autonomous vehicles or robo-taxis look to be potentially the biggest new total addressable market since the internet

■Expects used car prices to fall slightly in 2018 as the replacement demand from storms begins to wane, likely early in the year

■Doesn’t believe tax rewrite will have a meaningful effect on demand, but it could impact mix; a net positive for corporations

■Any meaningful disruption to NAFTA could be devastating for the entire auto value chain

National Automobile Dealers Association:

■Forecasting sales of 16.7 million new cars and light trucks, as demand for light trucks, SUVs and crossovers continues to be very healthy

■New-car dealerships to retail 15.3 million used vehicles in 2018 versus an expected 15.1 million used sales in 2017