The auto business, along with mention the cars we drive, are at the beginning of what most experts expect to be a period of rapid transformation. New technologies such as self-driving systems and electric drivetrains, and new shared-mobility business models enabled by technology, are likely to upend the traditional car business as we know it.
The big global automakers that have dominated the business for decades are scrambling to respond, as are their longtime suppliers. While investors are excited about new entrants such as Tesla (TSLA -1.81%) and NVIDIA (NVDA -1.87%), they've been wary of the legacy car companies and suppliers, because it seems likely that not all of them will thrive in the new world of self-driving electric vehicles.
But here's the thing that many have overlooked: Some will. A few might even ride the wave of change to long-term profit growth. Investors who identify and buy those companies now stand a good chance of racking up market-beating profits as these trends unfold over the next several years.
So which companies are the good bets? I think of all the big legacy automakers, General Motors (GM -4.62%) offers the best combination of tech-enabled growth potential and value right now. Among the legacy auto suppliers, I think Aptiv PLC (NYSE: APTV), a new company formed from a split of old-line supplier Delphi Automotive, is similarly situated.
And last but not least, I think that the iconic supercar maker Ferrari NV (RACE -0.30%) is also well positioned for growth as the new era unfolds -- for what might be surprising reasons. Read on to learn more.
The case for GM as an investment right now has three parts.
First, it's generating big profits today from strong sales of trucks and crossover SUVs, and it's set to generate incremental growth in those profits over the next several years. GM just finished launching all-new versions of its crossover SUVs, which are more profitable than the vehicles they replace -- and it's gearing up to do the same with its pickups and big truck-based SUVs over the next couple of years.
Second, GM has emerged as a leader in those transformative technologies. It was the first to ship an affordable long-range electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt EV. It has at least 20 more all-electric vehicles on the way -- and it promises that those vehicles will achieve something that has so far eluded rivals: solid profitability.
GM is also solidly in the mix when it comes to urban mobility. It owns a stake in ride-hailing start-up Lyft, and its subsidiary Maven is establishing itself as a strong contender in car-sharing.
It's also at the forefront of self-driving research and development. GM subsidiary Cruise Automation is rapidly refining its self-driving software. It estimates that at the current rate of improvement, it'll be ready for mass production in 2019.
All three of those points tie together: GM's plan is to mass-produce a self-driving version of the Chevy Bolt for use in urban ride-hailing services. It sees that as a new, profitable business that won't significantly disrupt its existing core business of selling trucks and SUVs to people who are mostly outside cities. It also sees a significant and enduring advantage for the first movers in self-driving, which it is well positioned to grab.
That's the case for profit growth: The new tech-enabled businesses will add to GM's existing profits.
The third point tells us why GM is a buy right now: It's fairly cheap at the moment, trading at just 7.2 times its expected 2017 earnings. And it pays a solid dividend, yielding around 3.6%, that GM management expects to be able to sustain through a downturn.
Long story short: GM is well positioned for profit growth because of, rather than despite, those transformative new technologies. You may have to wait a few years before it's fully realized, but the dividend could make it worthwhile.
Aptiv is a new name for (part of) a long-established auto-industry supplier. On Dec. 5, the former Delphi Automotive effectively split itself into two, spinning off its legacy internal-combustion-related business as Delphi Technologies and revamping the remaining business around a new name.
The old Delphi was a major supplier of what the industry calls "powertrain components," meaning parts and systems for engines. In recent years, it had built a new line of business around parts and services that help automakers integrate advanced technology into vehicles. Its offerings included everything from wiring harnesses to processor modules to software.
The technology-related part of old Delphi was increasingly aligned around advanced driver-assist technologies, and playing a key role in several self-driving development partnerships, including high-profile efforts involving BMW AG and Intel. Earlier this year, it acquired self-driving software start-up nuTonomy, giving it a center of artificial-intelligence expertise that it can leverage to create new offerings of its own.
All of that, minus Delphi's old internal-combustion businesses, is now Aptiv. The goal of the split is to unlock shareholder value: When viewed for its technology, Old Delphi was clearly undervalued. The hope is that as Aptiv emerges as a key player in self-driving, investors will value it appropriately.
I think that's a good bet. The good news for us is that it hasn't happened yet: Aptiv's price-to-earnings ratio is hovering around 16.5, slightly below where it was on the day of the split. If self-driving turns out to be a big business (which seems likely), and if at least some of the traditional automakers do well with it (which also seems likely), then Aptiv is well positioned for substantial growth over the next decade or so.
The case for Ferrari isn't like the cases for the other legacy car stocks, because Ferrari isn't like any other car-related company.
- Ferrari's operating margins are huge by carmaker standards: 24.2% in the most recent quarter, and that wasn't a fluke. (Compare with GM at 7.5% or BMW at 10.3%, typical results for well-run mass-market and premium automakers, respectively.)
- Automakers typically get clobbered in recessions, as expensive factories slow or are idled. But Ferrari has just one factory, and annual production of fewer than 10,000 vehicles: There's no risk of an idle assembly line. And its ultra-wealthy clientele is at least somewhat shielded from global economic cycles, which should help keep Ferrari sales going during a downturn while other automakers stall.
- Disruption? Not likely. While some investors fret over the possibility that private ownership of cars will largely disappear in the self-driving future, few think that's a risk to Ferrari. If anything, Ferrari would thrive on the contrast between its products and those hypothetical self-driving transportation appliances. Ferrari is adopting hybrid technology, but its beloved gasoline V8 and V12 engines are unlikely to go completely silent any time soon. It seems likely that as long as humans are legally allowed to drive, a lucky few will be driving Ferraris.
Last but not least, Ferrari is on course for profit growth. The company has long limited its annual sales to preserve its pricing power, but CEO Sergio Marchionne thinks it can increase sales somewhat over the next few years without hurting margin. We're not talking millions: Marchionne sees sales going from around 8,000 a year to 10,000 or a bit more.
Marchionne is also finding profit growth in a few other areas. He's expanding Ferrari's offerings to owners of older models, taking advantage of a small market for super-expensive limited models, and carefully extending the Ferrari brand to other luxury opportunities.
The case for Ferrari as an investment is a little nuanced. For starters, Ferrari's stock isn't cheap at around 28 times earnings. That's super-expensive for an automaker, but it's about right for a luxury company, which is what Ferrari really is. If nothing else, Ferrari's stock price should keep pace with its earnings growth.
But note that Marchionne is expected to present a detailed profit growth plan for Ferrari soon, probably in the first quarter of 2018. If that plan is credible, and it should be, it's likely to serve as a catalyst for the stock over the next year. Long story short: If you plan to buy, it's probably best to do so soon.