Recap of the Automotive Insights Conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago–Detroit Branch, Detroit Association of Business Economists, and WardsAuto

By Martin Lavelle

On January 12, 2017, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Detroit Branch, the Detroit Association of Business Economists (DABE), and WardsAuto hosted the inaugural Automotive Insights Conference. The conference was an expansion of the DABE’s annual Bob Fish Memorial Automotive Luncheon. As did the luncheon, the conference provided an opportunity for auto industry analysts to share their insights and forecasts for the coming year. The expanded conference format allowed for additional presentations that covered powertrain production schedules and upcoming regulatory requirements for new vehicles.

Sales Outlook

Haig Stoddard (WardsAuto) said that new light vehicle sales reached 17.5 million units in 2016, eclipsing the previous record of 17.4 million units set in 2015. The surge in new light vehicle sales seen in the fourth quarter of 2016 was correlated with the aggressive incentives offered by auto companies. New auto sales have now increased for seven consecutive years—the longest such streak since before the Great Depression. Against this backdrop, Stoddard forecasted a slight step back in sales to 17.3 million units in 2017.

Consumers are in a better position to enter the market for new vehicles, contended Paul Traub (Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago–Detroit Branch). He showed that consumer sentiment has been improving, indicating the people are becoming more open to buying new vehicles. In addition to the aggressive incentives offered by auto dealers, loans with longer terms than normal (typically lowering the monthly payments), falling household debt, and fairly easy access to auto credit are facilitating new car purchases. Stoddard and Traub argued the pent-up demand for new vehicles stemming from the Great Recession has been satisfied.

Stoddard’s long-term sales outlook called for a further slide in light vehicle sales in 2018 followed by a rebound. While Stoddard’s outlook did not include a recession, he indicated that if a mild recession were to occur, new light vehicle sales would be 1.5 million to 2.0 million units lower four years from now. Stoddard said the long-run trend for new light vehicles sales would reach 17.0 million units by 2025. That sales level would then become the new standard for whether or not it was a good year for new light vehicle sales. New light vehicle sales will exceed long-run expectations if consumer demand for the latest vehicle technology accelerates. In contrast, new light vehicle sales will fall short of long-run expectations if consumers are enticed by deals for used vehicles, young people continue to delay household formation (on account of student debt and other reasons), and telecommuting becomes even more popular than it is today, among other factors.

Future Direction of Vehicle Production

Little to no growth in new light vehicle production is expected for the U.S. over the next few years, with gains made elsewhere, according to Stoddard and John Sousanis (WardsAuto). Stoddard predicted that North American production will rise over 500,000 units over the next seven years because of increased production of small cars and crossover utility vehicles in Mexico and lower production in Canada. Sousanis also said he projected the light vehicle production share of cars and trucks to stay the same globally over the coming years, but these shares are anticipated to vary more by region. Turning to his forecasts for auto parts manufacturing, he said that more than 50% of the growth in powertrain production over the next seven years will occur in China. Moreover, internal combustion engine displacement and the average number of cylinders in a vehicle should continue to move downward, but remain relatively higher among vehicles sold in the North American market. Slightly more diversification among transmission types is expected among future vehicles, stated Sousanis.

The diversity in transmission production will partially result from manufacturers employing different technologies to comply with the federal government’s corporate fuel economy (and emissions) requirements by model year 2025. (1) Brett Smith (Center for Automotive Research) outlined how the auto industry is trying to meet these standards. By utilizing different technologies, the auto industry is innovating faster than originally anticipated by regulators. For instance, battery cell producers have lowered their cost structures earlier than anticipated—with much less capital and smaller economies of scale than thought necessary. (2) Yet, the current pace of innovation is not sufficient, according to Smith, as the auto industry is still “nowhere near” on track to achieve the 2025 fuel economy goals.

To help manufacturers meet the fuel economy standards, Smith contended that regulators need to provide more incentives and infrastructure that support consumer demand for battery electric and hybrid vehicles. Additionally, the federal government should offer more “emissions credits” for introducing electric or hybrid technologies, off-cycle technologies, (3) and similar innovations in their vehicles than at present. In general, Smith said further discussions about the timetable for achieving the 2025 fuel economy targets should be held between industry representatives and federal regulators. In response to some of Smith’s points, Sousanis said perhaps the federal government might consider differentiating fuel economy standards by vehicle class (e.g., subcompact, mid-size and standard sport utility vehicle).

Concluding the conference was a conversation between Dave Andrea (Center for Automotive Research) and Joe Anderson (TAG Holdings). The conversation centered on the leadership style of Anderson, who serves as TAG Holdings’ chairman and CEO, and his 30-plus years of experience in the auto industry. Anderson said he always learned a lot about each business he purchased before setting expectations for his staff. Those expectations focused on the following aspects of the business: product quality, cost, technology, and delivery.

Focusing on the first item on his list, Anderson said he believes quality control systems should be installed before the production process begins. This way the quality control process won’t be perceived as just a corrective experience. According to Anderson, quality control processes, while costly in the short run, will have long-term positive impacts on throughput and financial performance. In closing, Anderson advised those in the audience to design and engineer their products to fit their consumers’ preferences.

Conclusion

Consumers are in a more favorable position to buy vehicles today than they were shortly after the Great Recession. This has boosted analysts’ short-term forecasts for automotive sales. However, the long-term sales outlook is less certain. While there’s proven demand for the latest vehicle technology, especially among young consumers, they may delay their new vehicle purchases because many of them have yet to form their own households. On the production side, growth is expected in Mexico and China. But not much production growth is expected for the U.S. Vehicle producers are striving to hit federally mandated fuel economy (and emissions) standards by model year 2025, but this goal currently seems unattainable. Despite producers’ ability to innovate more quickly than expected, they remain “nowhere near” on track to hit the 2025 fuel economy targets. More dialogue between auto producers and regulators is needed to ensure that the fuel economy standards are met in a timely and reasonable fashion. Finally, greater dialogue between management and workers, as well as between automakers and consumers, can help improve product quality and customer satisfaction.