Wouldn't it be nice if the economy really were recovering?
Several promising signs suggest it might be. Retail sales for Black Friday weekend were up 9.2% over last year, according to one estimate, and online sales were similarly strong. And auto sales, a good proxy for how consumers are feeling financially, have been picking up in recent months as well.
November's auto sales results will be available later this week. Industry-watchers suggest it'll be another strong month, with Edmunds predicting a 12.1% increase over last year's numbers when adjusted to account for difference in the number of selling days.
But this rising tide isn't lifting all boats equally. Once again, a certain automaker from Dearborn looks poised for another big jump.
Ford's sales momentum continues
Just like your crazy uncle on Thanksgiving, it's looking like Ford (NYSE: F ) is about to grab yet another slice of the U.S. market-share pie. But unlike your uncle's pie habit, there's nothing unhealthy about this extra piece. Edmunds forecasts a 20% year-over-year jump in Ford's U.S. sales, good for (they predict) a 17.3% market share.
How good is that? Edmunds predicts that General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) U.S. market share will reach roughly 19.4% for November. That's more or less where it was in October, but down considerably from 20.3% last November. Ford's surging right into that decline.
GM's U.S. sales operation is actually doing a decent job of holding its ground while the General waits for its post-bankruptcy product development efforts to bear fruit. Like Ford, GM's profits per sale are up as incentives dwindle and consumers choose more heavily optioned vehicles (another sign that the economy is improving).
But if Ford's share of U.S. sales is surging, and GM's is holding steady, who's losing out?
Going the other way
The rest of the field is a mixed bag, but Edmunds clearly thinks that Toyota (NYSE: TM ) is in for another big sales decline. The forecaster predicts that the Japanese giant's adjusted U.S. sales will be down 5.9% over last November's, the only decline among the top six automakers in the U.S. market.
Toyota's problems are well-known: A lingering hangover from its unintended-acceleration debacle earlier this year, and a dearth of exciting new products. I suspect that reduced consumer anxiety around gas prices, combined with new fuel-efficient alternatives from other automakers, may also be mitigating the appeal of Toyota's "green" reputation. And simply put, key competitors such as Ford and GM have upped their game.
Toyota's fighting back on multiple fronts. Between its newfound respect for the U.S. Department of Transportation and some high-visibility green moves (its partnership with Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) , its announcement of a forthcoming "plug-in" version of the Prius), Toyota seems to be making some small progress -- but so far, those advances haven't really shown up in its U.S. sales numbers.
The rest of the field
So who's benefiting from Toyota's lingering troubles? Obviously, those woes aren't doing anything bad for Ford's sales, and Toyota's archrival Honda (NYSE: HMC ) is keeping pace with the overall growth of the market (Edmunds sees Honda up 11.4% on the month). But there's another big victor that Edmunds doesn't track. Korean manufacturer Hyundai is riding a series of hit products to big sales growth, with Edmunds competitor TrueCar predicting a whopping 45% year-over-year sales gain.
Hyundai has been overlooked by many for years, but it's past time to take the company seriously as a player in the U.S. market. Hyundai's vehicles have gone from being cheaply made low-price leaders to strong competitors on their own merits, and the company's U.S. market share is now about the same as Nissan's, at a bit less than 8%.
Chrysler, too, is showing signs of sales life. I hesitate to celebrate the company's predicted 17.3% increase too loudly, since last year's numbers were pretty awful. But the smallest of the Once-Big Three is making progress. With well-regarded new products starting to come into showrooms, the company's shotgun marriage to Fiat is starting to look like an inspired idea.
But does any of this matter?
The industry's current leaders in Detroit, well aware of their predecessors' concern for market share at the expense of profits, tend to downplay relative sales gains these days. Instead, they point to successes of particular new models, or higher transaction prices, as indicators that more directly reflect the success of their products and their companies' bottom lines.
But for Ford, GM, and Toyota shareholders, these monthly horse-race numbers are important illustrators of trends over time. The U.S. is one of the world's two largest auto markets and a huge part of the bottom line for each of these companies. In an era of fierce competition and tight margins, small changes in the sales pecking order can mean big things -- good or bad -- for profits, and ultimately, for share prices.
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