Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Deal or no deal?

The U.S. auto industry is on the skids. Two of the former "big three" American automakers are in bankruptcy, and last month sales of the three largest Japanese marques declined nearly 50% compared to a year ago. Any spin we hear about May's numbers being better than April's is promoting a mirage -- the uptick can be traced to short sales of excess inventory, nothing more.

The industry's survival -- indeed, the very future of American manufacturing and transportation -- doesn't hinge on new designs or streamlined operations. It depends solely on commerce. Either Americans will buy enough new vehicles to keep these companies afloat, or we won't.

That's as obvious as it is simple, but it also puts millions of citizen-consumers in a tough spot.

Right now, manufacturers and dealers are clearing the decks, blowing product off their lots at unheard-of discounts. These "deals" are hard to resist -- witness the increasing number of shiny new vehicles sporting temporary tags -- and the federal government pledges to backstop manufacturers' warranties (in theory, anyway). For buyers who have the cash or credit to seize the moment, what's not to like?

First, with manufacturers' futures uncertain, resale values are in the toilet and a vehicle's immediate depreciation is higher than ever. Cash-on-the-barrelhead buyers are taking an enormous hit before the odometer turns double digits, and for those who buy on credit, low-low-low interest rates don't come close to offsetting the huge drive-away loss.

Second, as the industry tries desperately to retool itself, hoping to attract the elusive Consumer of Tomorrow, manufacturers will amputate models and brands that don't fit into their plans. Owners of these orphaned vehicles will find parts harder to get, and authorized service inevitably will be less competent.

Finally, it's clear that we're headed for a smaller auto industry with leaner manufacturers, fewer dealers and service facilities and a network of parts suppliers that has no choice but to shrink. For consumers, the inconvenience of having to travel farther and wait longer will be exacerbated by the much higher cost of parts and service, especially on orphaned models.

Yes, I'm saying that now is a lousy time to buy a new car or truck -- with a few exceptions.

To find one of those exceptions, a buyer might consider models that have, for whatever reason, been around for five or ten years without significant mechanical changes. Forget styling -- I'm talking about engine, drivetrain and electrics. An established vehicle will have spawned a more reliable supply of parts (including salvage) and developed a larger number of experienced mechanics.

None of that erases the cost of depreciation, however. That's why, if I were in need of a car or truck right now, I'd buy used. My criteria would be the same as if I were looking at a new vehicle -- that is, I'd limit my search to long-running models.

In addition to avoiding big instant depreciation, I'd pay considerably less in sales tax and insurance premiums. If I lived in a jurisdiction that taxes motor vehicles as property (like real estate), I'd save money there, too.

I'd also have more choices for service. Instead of being tied to authorized facilities (dealers), my options would include small independent garages and mechanics, and that'd keep more of my money in my own community.

Of course, there are undeniable down-sides to buying used. Dealers are local businesses, and avoiding them would cause some to suffer and perhaps fail. And in the big picture, the national picture, I'd be declining to participate in the revitalization of the American auto industry, at least to some degree. By not spending money on a new vehicle, I wouldn't be supporting the automakers and the jobs that depend on their survival.

Worst of all, ultimately my actions could hasten the erosion of the nation's industrial base.

Even knowing that, I'm not of the opinion that it's somehow my patriotic duty to make ill-advised personal financial choices. Far too many such choices have been made already, on my behalf, by my elected officials.

My family comes first, my community second. Those are the priorities that will guide my decisions.

As we've seen, capitalism relies on commerce, not high finance. We have a much better chance of rebuilding our national economy if we start at the bottom and work up -- beginning with citizen-consumers making smart choices, close to home.