Auto Sales: Grounds for Optimism

Car sales are in the tank, but I’m optimistic, much more so than I am for housing.  First, here’s the recent bad news on automobile sales:

This is your basic falling-off-a-cliff chart.  What’s the reason for optimism?  Take a look at the long-run history:

I normalized car sales for population to compare past decades with recent experience.  Observe that this is a cyclical variable.  Yep, it sometimes goes down hard.  Then it recovers.

Next observe that we HAVE NOT BEEN OVER-BUYING cars like we did houses.  That last spike was in 2000, just before the 2001 recession.  In the housing boom years, car sales were pretty stable.  (This series shows units sold; the dollars spent is a bit stronger in 2005, as we shifted to more expensive cars/trucks/SUVs.)

The auto sales turnaround will not come next month, because there’s too much doom and gloom among consumers, some job losses, and difficulty for marginal borrowers to get car loans.  But the longer we spend below trend, the more upward pressure there will be on car sales when the economy shows a little bit of strength.

So is this a good time to buy GM?  I have to say, if it was truly worth $30 a share back in 2007, it looks like a great bargain at $10 today.  But here’s the rub: I’m not sure it was worth $30 last year.  Maybe it was, but I would want to sharpen my pencil on their employee liabilities and their competitive position before buying the stock.  I must say (here’s a non-expert comment) that they have some good looking cars for a change.  If I weren’t such a practical, reliability focused buyer I would abandon the Japanese nameplates for a GM or a Chrysler.