GM brings on the strippers

The tide goes back out...

The tide goes back out…

In a 2011 interview, Bob Lutz summed up the product philosophy that guided the product turnaround GM had hired him to lead as follows:

The product development guys, whether at Ford, BMW, Chrysler or GM, liked my leadership because I insist on good rather than cheap. And it’s definitely paid off. The average transaction prices of GM cars are up so much it more than offsets, way more than offsets, the maybe thousand bucks I put into the vehicle.

Lutz’s argument, that it is better to buy market share by investing in quality than by discounting, is unassailable in the abstract and absolute catnip for car writers (myself included, at the time).  And given the profound mediocrity of GM’s products before Lutz joined GM in 2001, it’s impossible to argue that his philosophy hasn’t had some kind of positive effect. As Lutz pointed out, GM had seen transaction prices rise throughout his tenure… but that trend appears to have turned.

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Who’s Afraid Of Direct Sales?

This is how you don't change a business... (courtesy: Opensecrets.org)

This is how you don’t change a business… (courtesy: Opensecrets.org)

In my most recent post at Bloomberg View, I draw a connection between Michigan’s new law blocking Tesla’s direct-sales model and the interests of the automakers based there. General Motors has taken the lead among Michigan’s automakers in opposing Tesla’s state-by-state battle for direct sales, publicly pushing Governors to protect the franchise system in Ohio and now in Michigan. In both cases, GM positioned itself as defender of “an even playing field” in the car business rather than arguing against direct sales or defending the franchise model. As I point out in the column, this is nothing short of absurd: GM’s extraordinary bailout make it the auto industry’s least-qualified advocate for fair play. But it’s also strangely telling: GM may not want Tesla to sell directly to consumers in states where it has a franchise dealer network, but it is hardly settled on the issue of direct sales themselves.

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US Car Sales On Fire… But Who Is Doing The Buying?

Bought... but not paid-for.

Bought… but not paid-for.

With America’s Seasonally Adjusted Annual Selling Rate (SAAR) creeping  above 16 million units in November, driving the market to new post-bailout highs, the usual cheerleaders are out in force to celebrate the strength of the US auto sales. But in the rush to spread the good news, few are looking at the troubling data underlying these frothy sales numbers. In the US, automakers count sales upon delivery to dealers rather than consumers. When times get tough and demand shrinks, OEMs often force dealers to take on more inventory in order to temporarily improve sales numbers. We saw both GM and Chrysler dump huge amounts of inventory on dealers in the leadup to their 2008 collapses, and we’ve reported on a similar dynamic at play in the current European downturn.

We won’t know the extent to which dealers are stacking up inventory until we see a full December 1 report from Automotive News, but initial signs are not promising. Already in October, Wards Auto saw an uncomfortable build-up in inventories across the industry that has apparently only grown among the worst offenders. At the time Wards predicted that “the excess will be alleviated in November, when most of the lost sales are recouped,” but although pricing discipline has remained high the inventories are continuing to build as we head into December.

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