Well, welcome to the new reality that is the last few months of 2016: New-vehicle sales comparisons are going to be tough. With sales peaking, although remaining at historically strong and highly profitable levels, expect monthly gains to remain volatile. This month appears to have been a miss for the major automakers, with Ford Motor Company (F 0.36%) posting a fairly steep 8.4% decline compared to the prior year's August. Let's dig into the data and see how bad it really was, and if there were any bright spots.
By the numbers
If investors are merely glancing at the numbers, August's results were a bit of a punch to the gut. Ford's namesake brand posted a total sales decline of 9% compared to last August, down to 205,239 units. Lincoln managed to post a 7% gain last month compared to the prior year, to 9,243 units, and the two combined for Ford's total decline of 8.4%, to 214,482 units.
In the segment breakdown, Ford cars continued to get slaughtered in August, with sales dropping 26.5% compared to the prior year -- worse than the year-to-date decline of 11.3%. Every single passenger car posted double-digit declines, except for the Police Interceptor Sedan, which is almost irrelevant as the volume of sales is so small. Despite the surge in SUVs, the segment still wasn't able to top last year's August and posted a decline of just under 2%. Ford trucks also posted a 1.6% decline last month, led by the 6.1% decline from Ford's bread-and-butter F-Series.
Now, if you want to spin it in a slightly more positive light, you could argue that while this August had the same total selling days as last year's, this year's lacked a fifth weekend, which is substantial in the automotive industry. You could also point out that Ford had a large summer sale last August, which contributed to a very strong month and makes for an even tougher comparison.
Yet another factor contributing to Ford's total decline in sales was the planned reduction of fleet sales after the first-half fleet sales were higher than normal -- down 10% in August, to 45,939 units.
Those three factors certainly played a role in Ford's total sales decline last month, but the fact remains that even Ford's retail sales were down 8% in that period. It was a soft month for Ford, no matter the angle, and a soft month for the industry as a whole. But that doesn't mean there aren't some positive takeaways for investors.
The overlooked vehicle
When talking about Ford's sales, few bother to mention the company's surging van sales -- but these are profitable vehicles for the automaker. The Transit recorded a 17% jump in sales last month, to nearly 12,000 units, and remains up 34% year to date, to more than 100,000 units.
And speaking of overlooked vehicles, the MKX continues to be a major bright spot for Lincoln this year, with sales up 56.5% year to date and up 49.9% in August. The MKX has outsold the MKC, which was also a great success story for Lincoln when it debuted as a 2015 model, and is only a handful of units from overtaking the MKZ for the brand's best-selling vehicle in 2016.
Thanks to continued strong sales of SUVs, Lincolns, trucks, and vans, Ford's average transaction prices managed to move $1,200 higher compared to the prior year, which is higher than the industry average, according to Ford.
What happens down the road?
The main takeaway for Ford investors, or investors in other major automakers, is that the rest of 2016 is likely to be choppy in terms of monthly sales gains or losses. The critical thing to watch will be how automakers respond to the plateau in sales, and so far Ford's management noted it hasn't chased volume by increasing incentives -- at least, not yet. That means paying attention to monthly sales calls, and quarterly calls, will be much more important than it has been over the past few years.