When it comes to signs of a US "recovery" nothing has been hyped up more than US auto companies reporting improving, in fact soaring, monthly car sales. On the surface this would be great news: with an aging car fleet, US consumers are surely eager to get in the latest and greatest product offering by your favorite bailed out car maker (at least until the recall comes). The only missing link has been consumer disposable income. So with car sales through the roof, the US consumer must be alive and well, right? Wrong, because there is one problem: it is car "sales" not sales. As the chart below from Bank of America proves, virtually all the growth in the US automotive sector in recent years has been the result of a near record surge in car leasing (where as we know subprime rules, so one's credit rating is no longer an issue) not outright buying.
Leasing soars: Household outlays on leasing are booming at a 20% yoy pace - a clear sign that demand for vehicles is alive and kicking. With average lease payments lower than typical monthly ownership costs and with a down-payment not typically required to enter into a lease, the surge in vehicle leasing is likely a sign that financial restraints are still holding back some would-be buyers. Thus, as the economy improves, bottled-up household demand for vehicles could translate to higher sales.
Chart 1: Households go for the low capital option: leasing soars
(yoy growth rate, inflation-adjusted)
It could also translate into even higher leases, which in turn bottlenecks real, actual sales.
Of course, the problem is that leasing isn't buying at all. It is renting, usually for a period of about 3 years. Which means that at the end of said period, an avalanche of cars is returned to the dealer and thus carmaker, who then has to dump it in the market at liquidation prices, which in turn skews the ROA calculation massively. However, what it does do is give the impression that there is a surge in activity here and now... all the expense of a massive inventory writedowns three years from now.
Which is precisely what will happen to all the carmakers as the leased cars come home to roost. But what CEOs know and investors prefer to forget, is that by then it will be some other management team's problem. In the meantime, enjoy the ZIRP buying, pardon leasing, frenzy.