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U.S. Auto Sales Are Peaking. So What -- Buy These 2 Stocks Anyway

By Daniel Miller - Feb 28, 2018 at 6:03AM

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Not every company in the automotive sector requires broadly rising vehicle sales to grow its profits. Case in point: Ferrari and Aptiv.

It might seem like the worst possible time to invest in companies involved in the automotive industry. After all, sales in the world's most profitable and lucrative market, North America, have plateaued, which will make growth more challenging to accomplish. But while many people are fearful of investing anywhere in the automotive sector now, savvy investors should take a look at two stocks in particular: Ferrari (RACE 3.41%) and Aptiv (NYSE: APTV).

Why exclusivity matters

Thanks to Ferrari's nearly flawless brand, its Formula 1 racing credentials, and its status as a manufacturer of ultra-luxury exotic sports cars, it's a unique play that's shielded from some of the concerns facing most automakers. At a time when other automakers are worried about finding a way to profitably grow their top lines while sales are plateauing in their North American profit engine, Ferrari doesn't face a similar need to expand its sales. Part of the luxury automaker's secret sauce is its exclusivity, which helps support pricing and brand power. Demand continues to outpace the supply Ferrari chooses to produce, making its stock a lucrative yet stable investment option.

If you missed Ferrari's recent earnings report, here's a hint: It was pretty impressive. Its earnings per share, excluding special items, topped estimates, while its revenue and EBITDA grew 10% and 18%, respectively, year over year. Heck, its already impressive margins even expanded 200 basis points to an unheard-of 30.3% -- good luck finding anything comparable elsewhere in the capital-intensive automotive industry.

Front end of a Ferrari

Image source: Ferrari

Despite Ferrari's desire to remain an exclusive brand, management plans to gradually increase shipments to 9,000 units annually in 2019. But don't let those gradual sales increases concern you, as Ferrari has already thoroughly thumped its own initial projections from when it went public in 2015. In fact, Ferrari reached the 1 billion euro adjusted-EBITDA mark two full years earlier than it had forecast. Further, that growth has given management the confidence to announce lofty profit and cash-flow targets. Ferrari's mid-range goals for the end of 2022 will target adjusted-EBITDA of 2 billion euros, and industrial free cash flow of 1.2 billion euros. And it plans to hit those targets while reducing its net industrial debt to zero by 2021.

RACE Chart

RACE data by YCharts

Thanks to Ferrari's incredible global brand power, and its wildly exclusive and insanely profitable sports cars, the company won't worry about mainstream vehicle sales flattening out in North America. So this ride is far from over for investors.

The hype is real

There's little doubt our roads will one day be crowded with vehicles that, for the most part, drive themselves. There are huge benefits to be gained: We'll recover our commuting time for work, research and relaxation, among many options; reduce crash injuries and fatalities; and reduce congestion and increase the efficiency of travel. And while the consumer is decades away from enjoying these improvements, investors can benefit along the way -- provided you invest in a company like Aptiv.

Aptiv might arguably be the purest way to invest in driverless vehicle technology. While other companies may dabble in it as a side project, Aptiv has spun off its legacy powertrain business to create a leaner company that's laser-focused on developing the electrical nervous systems of autonomous and electric vehicles. More specifically, Aptiv aims to provide end-to-end solutions for software, sensing & computing, signal & power distribution, and connected services -- what will become the brain and nervous systems of autonomous vehicles and how they connect to smart cities of the future.

Aptiv's balancing act is to provide investors with financial growth now, while continuing to invest for a rapidly evolving automotive industry. So far, so good; the company managed to increase sales (constant foreign exchange) by 5% while growing adjusted operating income by 7% in 2017 while finishing its powertrain spinoff ahead of schedule, acuqiring Movimento and Nutonomy, and making strategic investments in Valens, otonomo, Innoviz, LeddarTech. 

One thing going for Aptiv and its investors is that it already has a global manufacturing presence that will enable it nimbly respond to whichever regions and markets more quickly adapt to driverless vehicle technology and electric vehicle fleets. Another factor that helps stabilize Aptiv's business is one that investors often overlook. When the company delivers a product for a vehicle, the OEM is likely to stick with it for the model's entire production life, which may last for four to eight years, and sometimes longer. That means Aptiv generally has longer business relationships and strong customer retention rates.

While the most lucrative auto market in the world, North America, is dealing with plateauing sales, it's not all doom and gloom for auto stocks. Ferrari will continue to have success regardless of mainstream sales, because exclusivity is key to its success and it imposes a limit on its sales to support its brand and pricing. Ferrari also offers incredible margins that are unreal for auto investors. And while plateauing sales will negatively impact many suppliers, Aptiv is so focused on building for an incredibly lucrative and long-term trend in autonomous vehicles and smart mobility solutions, it will remain an incredible long-term investment. These two stocks are, and will remain, brilliant stocks for long-term investors within the automotive industry.

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Ferrari N.V. Stock Quote
Ferrari N.V.
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