US auto upturn seen, but timing is crucial

Does the US automobile industry have a chance? ''All the fundamental factors are positive,'' asserts John Hammond, director of automotive services at Data Resources Inc., a Lexington, Mass., consulting firm.

''There is definitely going to be a recovery - and a strong one,'' he adds, ''but the question is when.''

Can the domestic automakers wait?

Well into its third year, the longest sales drought in automotive history has Detroit carmakers reeling. November sales fell 25 percent below the impoverished level of November a year ago - 414,046 units compared with the year-earlier 551, 728.

High interest rates, sky-high prices, and consumer apathy and fear all are at fault, say the analysts, and the impact on the automobile industry could be drastic.

A Commerce Department report last week, in fact, charges that the financial strength of the US automobile industry has eroded to the point where its viability is jeopardized.

Working capital of the four US companies, the report declares, had fallen from $13 billion three years ago to $300 million last Oct. 1. ''The substantial loss of working capital is having a severe impact on carmakers,'' confirms Mr. Hammond of Data Resources.

To stay solvent, the domestic auto industry is cutting back severely on its component plants, slashing production, and throwing more and more people out of work. A month ago, for example, GM sold a New Jersey roller-bearing plant to its workers for $15 million in cash and 100,000 shares of preferred stock - an unthinkable move until now.

Ford Motor Company's pullback in production capacity is expected to have a sharp impact on Ford's future penetration in the car market. However, like GM, Ford has a huge asset base. ''When you talk about the long-run viability of a company such as Ford, it isn't a question of whether it will make it or won't make it,'' declares Hammond. ''Rather, it's a question of what will Ford look like in the long run.''

Chrysler and American Motors are other cases entirely. The future viability of AMC depends, by and large, on how important the US market is to Regie Nationale des Usines Renault, the government-owned French auto manufacturer that now owns almost half of AMC and ultimately may acquire full control.

As for Chrysler, it is in a poor working capital and cash flow position, and is $4 billion in debt. If Chrysler is going to survive, even in the short run, it may have to do more than just generate dollars through the sale of its products. In other words, the hard-pressed company may have to sell off even more of its assets.

Chrysler still has a Defense Group (maker of the M-1 tank), a financial subsidiary (Chrysler Financial Corporation), a profitable Mexican operation, and a network of dealerships.

Even though Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca insists repeatedly the company will not go back to the government with hat in hand, he is generally believed to have no other choice. The company still has $300 million available out of the $1.5 billion aid package voted by Congress in 1980, but a nod from the Chrysler Loan Guaranty Board is required to tap it.

Many companies are believed interested in pieces of Chrysler, but no one is willing to take on the debt. Even chairman Iacocca admits there is no hope for a takeover in the near future.

As a group, the domestic auto manufacturers lost some $4 billion in 1980 and stand to lose nearly $1.5 billion this year. Third-quarter losses were especially horrendous with GM toting up $468 million in red ink, Ford $335 million, and Chrysler $149 million.

General Motors, best off of all US carmakers, is talking about another major cut in its white-collar payroll in a move to further reduce overhead. The big automaker now has an estimated 190,000 workers on the office payroll.

Even if the economy snaps back soon, the auto industry runs the risk of financial disaster, the Commerce Department report declares, because the ''reduced demand growth will make it difficult for domestic producers to return to the sales and profit years of decades past.''

Hurting the domestic companies particularly is its poor competitive position vis-a-vis the Japanese imports. Japanese carmakers now have average unit costs $ 1,700 below American manufacturers on comparable models sold in the US,'' auto manufacturing analyst James Harbour told a conference at the Stanford Center for Economic Policy Research last month. And Chase Econometrics, a economic forecasting firm, says that the import quota on Japanese autos has given them ''additional credibility'' and may add up to ''some of the best advertising these products have ever received.''

All the US carmakers are ''flat-out broke,'' Mr. Harbour said.

By contrast, he points out, Toyota, debt-free, clears at least $500 average profit per car sold and made at least $1.7 billion in 1980.

Yet despite the gloom, the US industry continues to look for a turnaround in 1982. However, ''the first half will be very rough sledding,'' predicts Donald E. Petersen, president of Ford. ''The economy will be sluggish - perhaps until midyear - and the auto industry will remain depressed.''

But not all industry observers agree that there will be an upturn late next year. Chase Econometrics said Dec. 7 that the auto industry should see ''a little bit of improvement'' during the first quarter of 1982, but that the outlook for the model year as a whole was gloomy.

In contrast, Data Resources analyst Hammond looks for an upsweep in sales by mid-1982.

''We're now talking about a turnaround in the third quarter of 1982 - the last quarter of the '82-model cars,'' he says. ''Our economic forecast really begins to pick up in the third quarter of next year.''

Helping a rebound, assuming it happens, is the upcoming July 1 tax cut. Further, with the November elections on the horizon by then, the politicians will hope to swing the electorate into a more beneficent mood.

Ultimately, say some analysts, the dam of consumer restraint will break and unleash a tremendous buying spree of new cars, despite their high price tags. The pressures, they say, are these:

* Consumer affordability.''

If you take a look at auto debt as part of the consumer cash flow, you find it is at an all-time low,'' says analyst Hammond. ''Even though consumer income is so much restrained during the recession, they have the ability to take on substantially more debt for auto purchases if they return to more normal consumption patterns,'' he adds.

Too, interest rates are falling and Data Resources is predicting a 13 percent prime in the first quarter of 1982 although it is expected to edge back up by the third quarter of the year.

* Savings are high.

Funds are being diverted from consumption, such as buying autos, into savings accounts. When consumer confidence returns, that potential buying power can be taken out of savings and put into a new car.

* More autos are being scrapped than sold.

Simply, current new car sales are running below the levels required to maintain the current number on the road. Furthermore, motorists are not maintaining their cars in a way which would indicate they plan to hold on to them for a long time.

''The only conclusion we can make,'' says Hammond, ''is that many of these people have only temporarily delayed their decision to buy a new car till they feel more certain about the market environment.''

Detroit carmakers, who are grasping at any straw they can find, hope that forecast is right.

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