Carmakers, new and used car dealers and the rest of us, the all-important cogs in the machine, the car-buyers, are all having a tough time. When it comes to America's consumers, though, there seems little, if anything, in the way of relief from Washington.
We've been posting almost daily about how this economic crisis, which is slamming homeowners and almost anyone and any business needing credit, is taking a toll in another even more insidious way - that of people missing their car and truck payments.
Home mortgages and foreclosures make headlines; someone who has missed a car payment or two isn't a "hot" enough story for the evening newscast. "No visuals!" a TV producer will say. Nobody puts a sign saying "We Repo'd Here!" at the end of a driveway when some poor person loses their car or truck, which is often their only source of transportation for work, school, doctor visits, shopping, etc.
Automotive retailing accounts for 20 percent of all retail sales nationwide - 20 percent of all retail sales in this country - and they've already dropped precipitously. Auto sales were down 26.6 percent in September compared to a year before. There were 965,160 vehicles sold in September in the US, and the last time fewer than one million cars and trucks were sold in a single month was February, 1993.
Markets as diverse as Great Britain, Germany, Vietnam, India, South Korea and Italy all suffered dramatic car sales losses that month, as did China. In Japan, September sales dropped to their lowest levels in 34 years.
And while October isn't even half over, it's almost a sure bet that these kinds of serious losses will continue and creep into even more countries.
The number of people late on their monthly car and truck payments is also huge, represented by nearly $25 billion worth of consumer auto loans that are delinquent, a new study reports, according to industry journal Automotive News.
In the second quarter of 2008, Experian Automotive says, 2.48 percent of all auto loans were 30 days past due, compared with 2.28 percent in the year-ago quarter. Auto loans that were 60 days past due in the second quarter rose to 0.75 percent from 0.67 percent in the second quarter of 2007, Experian says.
Don't let those seemingly-small numbers throw you; they add up to $25 billion in missed or late payments.
The machinery for the Detroit bailout was in a bill passed last December; the $25 billion amount of the bailout has now been worked-out and approved by lawmakers. GM, Ford and Chrysler should start seeing about $7 billion of the total this week.
Chrysler is an especially interesting case. They're an independent, privately-held company with no stockholders, and their stock is no longer traded on any of the world's exchanges. It occurs to us, and maybe you, too - Should Chrysler even be eligible for a bailout using taxpayer's money? Sure, plenty of companies benefiting from the big bailout are privately-held, too. Think of all those investment house, bank and brokerage firm executives who are whooping it up this week thanks to our money.
But if Chrysler were to go out of business, it wouldn't mean the end of the world, wouldn't mean the destruction of some sort of iconic corporation whose loss would irreparably harm the nation. These were among the reasons put in front of us when the public was clamoring (and still is, rightfully) for government to justify the $700 billion bailout.
It's still not entirely clear whether some newly-formed government entity will be able to buy bundled car loans and leases and hold them until the market considers them viable and profitable again, as is happening with home mortgages.
The news is not any better for the nation's new car dealerships.
Annette Sykora, chairperson of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), is quoted in the Detroit News as predicting the possibility of up to 700 new car dealers closing-up shop by the end of the year.
"Credit is the lifeblood of this industry," she said at an Automotive Press Association luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club. "We now need government to implement the recovery plan as quickly as possible."
Sykora also said that the number of dealers forced out of business because consumers have stopped shopping for cars and trucks, or shifted from big vehicles to smaller cars, could increase if the $700 billion bailout plan that was passed and signed by President Bush last week is not implemented soon.
There are currently 21,534 new car dealerships in the US according to industry journal Automotive News, a drop of 227 from the year before.
Last week, in researching a story for the Santa Monica Daily Press, I spoke with the sales manager for a medium-sized Toyota dealership in that lovely California coastal city. He told me that the dealership has just over 100 employees, many of them from the local area who have worked there for 20 years or more.
If 700 dealerships were to close their doors, using the information the Toyota sales manager gave me, we can safely say that as many as 70,000 men and women, many of them highly-skilled, whether it be in the sales office or in the "back," where the parts and service operations are located, could lose their jobs between now and the end of this year.
From the kid who loves cars and shows-up every day, before school, to wash and keep the cars "on the line" clean and shining, and who wants to work in a dealership full-time someday, to the technicians who are as talented with computers as they are with wrenches to the sales office and everyone else involved in keeping a dealership open, no worker in America deserves to lose their job like that.
And very often, the sales staffs at dealerships work on commission only, and if they are salaried, it is at some ridiculously low rate to keep the state investigators away. Finding a dealership which offers sales staff and other key employees 401K plans and health insurance is rare indeed, much too rare for the 21st century.