Automakers are cautiously optimistic for a 2023 rebound after worst new vehicle sales in more than a decade
New Jeeps on display at a New York City car dealership on Oct. 5, 2021.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
DETROIT — Automakers are hopeful last year’s new vehicle sales — the worst in more than a decade — will mark a bottom for the market, at least in the near term.
Industry estimates range from 13.7 million to 13.9 million new vehicles being sold last year in the U.S., a roughly 8% to 9% decline compared with 2021 and the lowest level since 2011 when sales were recovering from the Great Recession.
Sales varied widely by automaker, as parts and supply chain problems affected companies at different times, but most — with General Motors’ 2.5% gain as a notable exception — were down compared with 2021. Ford Motor, Hyundai and Kia all reported low single-digit declines. Toyota Motor was down 9.6%, while Stellantis, Nissan and Honda Motor posted double-digit falls of 13%, 25% and 29.4%, respectively.
But auto industry executives remain cautiously optimistic that sales will rebound in 2023, regardless of recessionary fears, rising interest rates and other economic concerns. A typical year prior to the pandemic saw more than 17 million in sales.
Toyota and GM said they expect U.S. auto sales to increase to about 15 million vehicles this year. That would be a roughly 9% increase over 2022. S&P Global Mobility and Edmunds expect 2023 new U.S. vehicle sales to be 14.8 million, while Cox Automotive’s preliminary forecast is 14.1 million.
“We’re cautiously optimistic about the future. In 2023, there will be an uptick not quite as high as we would love it to be but going the right direction,” Jack Hollis, executive vice president of Toyota Motor North America, said during a briefing Wednesday. “Demand is still higher than our supply.”
The reason for the optimism is two-fold: Sales have been at or near recessionary levels due to parts and supply chain issues, plus demand has piled up from consumers and businesses after years of tight vehicle inventories during the pandemic.
Automakers have reported record or near-record results in recent years amid the tight supply of new vehicles and resilient consumer demand. They have banked on sustained pent-up demand as inventory levels normalize, hoping to avoid heavy discounts or incentives to move vehicles.
The deep discounts typical of the industry help to maintain production and increase sales, however several auto executives have vowed they will not return to such tactics at the cost of profits.
Automakers can offset underwhelming retail sales with fleet sales to governments and companies such as rental car agencies. Those bulk sales have taken a back seat to retail customers in recent years and are traditionally less profitable than those to consumers but assist in moving product.
“The fleet demand is very high, no doubt,” Hollis said, adding he believes there will be a “moderation” across the industry regarding incentives.
Charlie Chesbrough, Cox’s senior economist and senior director of industry insights, said he doesn’t believe vehicle sales will post any notable increase in 2023 — unless automakers let up on pricing to make them more affordable.
Automakers have largely passed rising commodity costs to build vehicles onto consumers, making the vehicles more expensive. That, combined with skyrocketing interest rates, higher gas prices and broad inflation, has dampened new vehicle demand.
“This is one of those rare times where we really have no idea which direction the market could go. It could easily go up or down from where we’re at right now,” Chesbrough told CNBC. “The pace over the last couple of months has been definitely pointing to a weakening market.”
Vehicle inventories improved toward the end of the year — a sign record-high vehicle prices may finally ease. And higher volumes bring the potential for a “demand destruction” scenario, where supplies begin to outpace demand.
Many on Wall Street also fear that the most profitable days for automakers may be behind them amid higher interest rates, falling used vehicle prices and a normalization of sales mix away from fully loaded models.
Chesbrough said there’s “certainly downside risk to the market” in the event of a full-blown recession. But he said the impact wouldn’t be as prevalent as it has been in the past because many lower-income and subprime borrowers, who would typically leave the new vehicle segment during a recession, have already done so because of low inventories and record-high prices.
Last year’s sales total remains an estimate because not all automakers publicly release results. Motor Intelligence reports sales were nearly 13.9 million units last year, Cox Automotive estimates sales at 13.8 million and Edmunds and Wards Intelligence estimate 13.7 million.
Lucid to cut 1,300 workers amid signs of flagging demand for its EVs
Lucid Motors CEO Peter Rawlinson poses at the Nasdaq MarketSite as Lucid Motors (Nasdaq: LCID) begins trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange after completing its business combination with Churchill Capital Corp IV in New York City, New York, July 26, 2021.
Andrew Kelly | Reuters
Struggling EV maker Lucid said in a regulatory filing on Tuesday that it plans to cut about 18% of its workforce, or roughly 1,300 employees, as part of a larger restructuring to reduce costs as it works to ramp up production of its Air luxury sedan.
Lucid said it will incur one-time charges totaling between $24 million and $30 million related to the job cuts, with most of that amount being recognized in the first quarter of 2023.
News of the job cuts was first reported by Insider earlier on Tuesday. Lucid’s shares closed down over 7% on Tuesday following the Insider report.
In a letter to employees, CEO Peter Rawlinson said the job cuts will hit “nearly every organization and level, including executives,” and that affected employees will be notified over the next three days. Severance packages will include continued healthcare coverage paid by Lucid, as well as an acceleration of equity vesting, Rawlinson wrote.
Lucid ended 2022 with about $4.4 billion in cash on hand, enough to last until the first quarter of 2024, CFO Sherry House told CNBC last month ahead of the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report. But there have been signs that demand for the high-priced Air has fallen short of Lucid’s internal expectations, and the company may be struggling to convert early reservations to sold orders.
Lucid said that it had more than 28,000 reservations for the Air as of Feb. 21, its most recent update. But it also said that it plans to build just 10,000 to 14,000 vehicles in 2023, far fewer than the roughly 27,000 that Wall Street analysts had expected.
With Lucid’s factory currently set up to build about 34,000 vehicles per year, the company has warned of continuing losses.
“As we produce vehicles at low volumes on production lines designed for higher volumes, we have and we will continue to experience negative gross profit related to labor and overhead costs,” House said during Lucid’s earnings call on Feb. 22.
Lucid hasn’t yet announced a date for its first-quarter earnings report.
Virgin Orbit extends unpaid pause as Brown deal collapses, ‘dynamic’ talks continue
NEWQUAY, ENGLAND – JANUARY 09: A general view of Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft carrying the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, as final preparations are made at Cornwall Airport Newquay on January 9, 2023 in Newquay, United Kingdom. Virgin Orbit launches its LauncherOne rocket from the spaceport in Cornwall, marking the first ever orbital launch from the UK. The mission has been named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones hit. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Matthew Horwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Virgin Orbit is again extending its unpaid pause in operations to continue pursuing a lifeline investment, CEO Dan Hart told employees in a company-wide email.
Some of the company’s late-stage deal talks, including with private investor Matthew Brown, collapsed over the weekend, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.
Hart previously planned to update employees on the company’s operational status at an all-hands meeting at 4:30 p.m. ET on Monday afternoon, according to an email sent to employees Sunday night. At the last minute, that meeting was rescheduled “for no later than Thursday,” Hart said in the employee memo Monday.
“Our investment discussions have been very dynamic over the past few days, they are ongoing, and not yet at a stage where we can provide a fulsome update,” Hart wrote in the email to employees, which was viewed by CNBC.
Brown told CNBC’s “Worldwide Exchange” last week he was in final discussions to invest in the company. A person familiar with the terms told CNBC the investment would have amounted to $200 million and granted Brown a controlling stake. But discussions between Virgin Orbit and the Texas-based investor stalled and broke down late last week, a person familiar told CNBC. As of Saturday those discussions had ended, the person said.
Separately, another person said talks with a different potential buyer broke down on Sunday night.
The people asked to remain anonymous to discuss private negotiations. A representative for Virgin Orbit declined to comment.
Hart promised Virgin Orbit’s over 750 employees “daily” updates this week. Most of the staff remain on an unpaid furlough that Hart announced on Mar. 15. Last week, a “small” team of Virgin Orbit employees returned to work in what Hart described as the “first step” in an “incremental resumption of operations,” with the intention of preparing a rocket for the company’s next launch.
Virgin Orbit’s stock closed at 54 cents a share on Monday, having fallen below $1 a share after the company’s pause in operations.
Virgin Orbit developed a system that uses a modified 747 jet to send satellites into space by dropping a rocket from under the aircraft’s wing mid-flight. But the company’s last mission suffered a mid-flight failure, with an issue during the launch causing the rocket to not reach orbit and crash into the ocean.
The company has been looking for new funds for several months, with majority owner Sir Richard Branson unwilling to fund the company further.
Virgin Orbit was spun out of Branson’s Virgin Galactic in 2017 and counts the billionaire as its largest stakeholder, with 75% ownership. Mubadala, the Emirati sovereign wealth fund, holds the second-largest stake in Virgin Orbit, at 18%.
The company hired bankruptcy firms to draw up contingency plans in the event it is unable to find a buyer or investor. Branson has first priority over Virgin Orbit’s assets, as the company raised $60 million in debt from the investment arm of Virgin Group.
On the same day that Hart told employees that Virgin Orbit was pausing operations, its board of directors approved a “golden parachute” severance plan for top executives, in case they are terminated “following a change in control” of the company.
Historic UAW election picks reform leader who vows more aggressive approach to auto negotiations
Supporters wave signs during an address at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 5, 2012 on the second day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC).
Mladin Antonov | AFP | Getty Images
DETROIT – United Auto Workers members have ousted their president in the union’s first direct election, ushering in a new era for the prominent organized labor group ahead of negotiations later this year with the Detroit automakers.
The union’s new leader will be Shawn Fain, a member of the “UAW Members United” reform group and local leader for a Stellantis parts plant in Indiana. He came out ahead in a runoff election by hundreds of votes over incumbent Ray Curry, who was appointed president by union leaders in 2021.
Fain, in a statement Saturday, thanked UAW members who voted in the election. He also hailed the election results as a historic change in direction for the embattled union, which he says will take a “more aggressive approach” with its employers.
“This election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW. For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result, we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures,” Fain said.
Curry, who previously protested the narrow election results, said in a statement that Fain will be sworn in on Sunday and that Curry is “committed to ensuring that this transition is smooth and without disruptions.”
“I want to express my deep gratitude to all UAW staff, clerical support, leaders and most of all, our union’s active and retired members for the many years of support and solidarity. It has been the honor of my life to serve our great union,” Curry said.
More than 141,500 ballots were cast in the runoff election that also included two other board positions, a 33% increase from last year’s direct election in which neither of the presidential candidates received 50% or more of the votes.
The election was overseen by a federal monitor, who did not immediately confirm the results. The election results had been delayed several weeks due to a run-off election as well as the close final count.
Shawn Fain, candidate for UAW president, is in a run-off election with incumbent Ray Curry for the union’s highest-ranking position.
Jim West for UAW Members United
Fain’s election adds to the UAW’s largest upheaval in leadership in decades, as a majority of the union’ s International Executive Board will be made up of first-time directors who are not part of the “Administration Caucus” that has controlled the union for more than 70 years.
Fain and other members of his leadership slate ran on the promise of “No corruption. No concessions. No tiers.” The last being a reference to a tiered pay system implemented by the automakers during recent negotiations that members have asked to be removed.
The shuffle follows a yearslong federal investigation that uncovered systemic corruption involving bribery, embezzlement, and other crimes among the top ranks of the UAW.
Thirteen UAW officials were convicted as part of the probe, including two past presidents. As part of a settlement with the union in late 2020, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the union and the organization held a direct election where each member has a vote, doing away with a weighted delegate process.
For investors, UAW negotiations with the Detroit automakers are typically a short-term headwind every four years that result in higher costs. But this year’s negotiations are anticipated to be among the most contentious and important in recent memory.
Fain has said the union will seek benefit gains for members, advocating for the return of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, as well as raises and job security.
The change in the UAW comes against the backdrop of a broader organized labor movement across the country, a pro-union president and an industry in the transition to all-electric vehicles.
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