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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Chrysler, GM Dealer Cuts Point to More Rough Times Ahead for U.S. Automakers

By William Patalon III
Executive Editor
Money Morning/Money Map Report

Just days after Chrysler LLC said it would be cutting one quarter of its auto dealerships, 1,100 General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GM) dealerships have reportedly been told not to expect a relationship with the embattled U.S. carmaker after October 2010.

GM dealers targeted for separation were informed by letter over the weekend, Reuters reported.

The eradication of hundreds of hundreds of American auto dealerships is merely the latest development in the ongoing dismantling of the so-called U.S. “Big Three’’ – a process that seems likely to leave Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) as the last American automaker standing.

“These companies are making up for now for what they have avoided doing for years, if not decades,” industry analyst John A. Casesa, managing partner of consultantcy Casesa Shapiro Group LLC, told The New York Times. “And if the market doesn’t stabilize, this may only be Phase I.”

The moves will clearly change the entire auto-purchasing landscape for U.S. consumers. All told, nearly 800 dealers selling Chrysler brands were given notice that they would be cut off next month. These dealers represent about a quarter of the 3,200 in Chrysler’s dealership network, but account for only 14% of the company’s sales.

Without the dealership cuts, U.S. automakers will likely see their troubles continue. For instance, in its bankruptcy filing, Chrysler says it needs to streamline its distribution-and-sales operation to become more competitive. The current Chrysler dealership sells 303 vehicles per year, compared with 1,219 for a Honda (NYSE ADR: HMC) and 1,292 for Toyota. (NYSE ADR: TM).

GM is looking to close as many as 2,600 of its dealers – about 40% – by 2010. This weekend, it notified the first 1,010 that their franchise deals with General Motors would not be renewed after they expired in October. The other dealerships that will get cut are those that sell such brands as Hummer and Saturn – brands that GM plans to divest.

Both Chrysler and GM have been subsisting on government loans for months.

Just a few years ago, U.S. auto dealers were selling an aggregate 16 million vehicles annually. But after the biggest drop in vehicle sales in a quarter century, dealers are now struggling to even reach the 10-million-vehicle mark.

The letters to GM dealers did not specifically say the company would be filing for bankruptcy, but the move indicates that could well happen next month, which is when the longtime No. 1 U.S. automaker is due to submit a restructuring plan to U.S. President Barack Obama, The Times reported.

In fact, General Motors sales chief Mark LaNeve told reporters on a conference call that carrying out the plan without the benefit of bankruptcy-court protection would be nearly impossible, since state franchise laws make it "onerous and expensive" for manufacturers to force dealers out of business. Wrapped in the cloak of bankruptcy protection, however, the dealership contracts can be nullified, the The Wall Street Journal said.

Chrysler on Thursday asked its bankruptcy judge, U.S. Justice Arthur J. Gonzalez, to hold a hearing on June 3 to allow the company to reject its “contracts and unexpired leases with certain domestic dealers.”

At a time when the falling earnings are continuing to push U.S. companies to make deep job cuts, the dealership closures will add to the national rise in joblessness. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) has estimated that all dealership closings – including those already announced by Chrysler and GM – could cost the U.S. economy 187,000 jobs – or more than the total U.S. employment of the two companies.
Market Matters

When the government was “forced” to help resolve the global financial crisis with bailouts and stimulus packages, analysts hoped for the best (economic and market recoveries) and feared the worst (overreach or even socialism).

To date, some signs have emerged that the recession may be nearing an end, though naysayers also warn about the ramification of “excessive” intervention.

On that note, the Obama administration has begun talks about a complete overhaul of the compensation structure for the entire financial services industry, a move that could even impact employees at institutions that did not accept bailout moneys. While some believe the current system rewards short-term goals in lieu of longer-term performance, many still feel the government is overstepping its bounds.

President Obama’s administration also announced plans to regulate certain derivative securities, many of which have done considerable damage to the balance sheets of the world’s leading institutions. While many “experts” agree greater transparency and oversight may have prevented some of the carnage, others worry that over-regulation is never a good things and efforts to improve the system actually may have the exact opposite impact. Stay tuned.

With the much-ballyhooed stress-tests in the books, banks moved to raise capital with US Bancorp (NYSE: USB), Capital One Financial Corp. (NYSE: COF), and Bank of NY Mellon Corp. (NYSE: BK) among those issuing $1 billion to $2.5 billion in new stock (and diluting current shareholders).

In fact, US Bancorp expects to be the first major institution to repay Troubled Asset Relief Program funds over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, as banks begin to move off the Treasury’s coffers, insurance companies become the latest recipients as The Hartford now is eligible for a $3 billion-plus government infusion with others to follow. Automakers continued their cost-cutting moves as both GM and Chrysler started saying goodbye to large percentages of their dealers (and perhaps another 150,000 in related workers), while Ford raised about $1.6 billion through a 300,000-share offering of its own. GM’s share price fell into penny stock territory for the first-time since 1933 as bankruptcy becomes an even greater likelihood.

On the earnings front, Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M), JC Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP), Liz Claiborne Inc. (NYSE: LIZ), and Sony Corp. (NYSE ADR: SNE) all posted disappointing results, a sign that retailers have yet to overcome the ongoing consumer negativity. While Wal-Mart Co. Inc. (NYSE: WMT) continued to outshine rivals, its earnings were negatively impacted by currency translation.

Both SAP AG (NYSE ADR: SAP) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) expressed optimism about the future for techs as phrases like “bottomed out” and “glimmers of hope” brought renewed investor confidence, though the latter was greeted with a $1.45 billion record fine in Europe over sales and marketing abuses. Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) announced its first debt offering in its 36-year existence and some expect the tech giant to explore acquisition opportunities.

Market/Index


Year Close (2008)


Qtr Close (03/31/09)


Previous Week
(05/08/09)


Current Week
(05/15/09)


YTD Change

Dow Jones Industrial


8,776.39


7,608.92


8,574.65


8,268.64


-5.79%

NASDAQ


1,577.03


1,528.59


1,739.00


1,680.14


+6.54%

S&P 500


903.25


797.87


929.23


882.88


-2.26%

Russell 2000


499.45


422.75


511.82


475.84


-4.73%

Fed Funds


0.25%


0.25%


0.25%


0.25%


0 bps

10 yr Treasury (Yield)


2.24%


2.68%


3.29%


3.12%


+88 bps
Economically Speaking

Yep, the consumer is a fickle sort. In fact, consumer statistics are quite fickle these days as well. A few weeks back, same store sales for April showed enhanced retail activity, a strong sign for the consumer-driven economy. Well, this past week, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that April retail sales actually fell by 0.4%, a worse than expected showing and the eighth decline over the past 10 months. Before analysts could express renewed doubt about any pending recovery, Redbook Research threw even more confusion into the equation by reporting that chain-store sales climbed 0.1% during the first week in May and bested Wall Street expectations.

Additionally, the University of Michigan Sentiment Index reached its highest confidence level since September 2008. As long as the labor picture remains bleak, however, consumer activity may vary from one month (week) to the next as many folks remain hesitant to spend and continue saving for that rainy day.

The inflation gauges calmed down those deflation naysayers as the producer price index (PPI) climbed in April on rising food prices and the consumer price index (CPI) was reported as unchanged last month. Additionally, as oil prices creep a tad higher, the threats of (economy-hurting) price declines lessens; therefore, analysts can focus on other more pressing matters (like labor, manufacturing, housing, retail, etc.) and leave the (soon-to-come) inflation hysteria for another day. Of note, RealtyTrac reported foreclosures soared by over 30% last month as unemployed homeowners struggle to make their mortgage payments.

Weekly Economic Calendar

Date

Release


Comments

May 12


Balance of Trade (03/09)


First increase in deficit in 8 months

May 13


Retail Sales (04/09)


Surprisingly weak 0.4% decline in activity

May 14


PPI (04/09)


Rising food costs led to higher than expected number




Initial Jobless Claims (05/09/09)


Claims rose more than expected

May 15


CPI (04/09)


Unchanged from last month




Industrial Production (04/09)


6th straight monthly decline

The Week Ahead







May 19


Housing Starts (05/09)




May 20


Fed Policy Meeting Minutes




May 21


Initial Jobless Claims (05/16/09)







Leading Eco. Indicators (04/09)




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