Based on how the flow of tax refunds impact the used-vehicle market, Cox Automotive wasn’t surprised by the movement of wholesale prices in March.
According to Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index — a measure of wholesale prices adjusted for mix, mileage and season — wholesale used-vehicle prices decreased slightly in March compared to February. But March prices climbed 5.4 percent from year-ago levels.
At 130.8, the index is at its lowest level since July 2017, a point just prior to when Hurricanes Harvey and Irma began to impact the market.
“The marginal price decline in March was not significant,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Cox Automotive. “The slight decline in the seasonally-adjusted index value was the result of the adjustment process expecting more of an increase in March, but delays in tax refunds have shifted the peak of used-car demand by several weeks.
“Looking ahead, we are expecting strong pricing in April and May, as tax refunds more fully impact the used-car market,” Smoke continued.
Delving deeper into the March wholesale data, analysts found several segments with prices moving higher.
In fact, Manheim noticed every vehicle segment posted wholesale price increases compared to last year, with an especially strong gain once again in vans. First quarter wholesale price trends for all segments included:
— Compact car prices represent significant strength, with a 5.4 percent increase over 2017. That’s even more than the typically strong SUV/crossover segment.
— The midsize car segment was the weakest performer, but unlike previous quarters, the segment did not experience a decline, posting instead an increase of 0.9 percent over 2017.
— Pick-ups and vans both showed strength, with vans increasing significantly thanks to a 13.4-percent gain compared with March of last year. Manheim added that pick-ups had a comparatively modest increase of 5.5 percent.
—Wholesale pricing for SUVs and crossovers underperformed the overall market, increasing 5.1 percent from last year. Analysts explained the underperformance is likely due to an increasing supply of used SUVs and more aggressive pricing and incentive spending on new inventory.
— Luxury car values once again underperformed the overall market, increasing 4.1 percent over the same period last year.
Also of note, Manheim determined rental-risk pricing strengthened in March, with the average price for rental-risk units sold at auction up 7 percent over last year and 4 percent compared to February.
Analysts added the average mileage of 45,000 for rental-risk units in March was 13 percent higher than last year.
Correlating the used-vehicle market with the tax calendar
After plowing through the March wholesale pricing data, Cox Automotive returned back to a discussion about IRS activities and a recap of how retail sales landed in March.
Historically, Cox Automotive acknowledged used-vehicle sales in the U.S. have peaked in the weeks following the peak in tax refunds. Starting in 2017, however, the IRS delayed the point when households with eligible tax credits could file tax returns. This resulted in refunds being delayed by approximately four weeks, impacting used-vehicle sales and pricing.
“This same situation is impacting 2018, as well,” analysts said.
Used-vehicle sales in March increased 1 percent over year-ago levels, according to Cox Automotive estimates, with the month’s seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) for used vehicles rounding out at 39.5 million units.
Since 2009, the average March increase relative to February in the Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index has been 3.5 percent, just slightly higher than the March 2018 unadjusted increase of 3.4 percent.
Analysts explained the historical bump in March pricing has been driven by an increase in used-vehicle demand driven by earlier tax refunds.
“The seasonal-adjustment process still expects to see this historical pattern in used-vehicle values,” Cox Automotive said. “As a result, the seasonally adjusted value for March registered the slight 0.15 percent decline.”
Through the week of March 23, Cox Automotive mentioned the cumulative number of refunds in 2018 is down 1 percent compared to 2017.
“The weekly trend in refunds, however, relative to last year, is now trending up, with experts predicting a stronger price trend in April as retail used-car demand will likely peak for the year,” analysts added.
Meanwhile, on the new-car side, Cox Automotive recapped that new-vehicle sales increased 6 percent year-over-year in March, coming in far stronger than forecast and surprising most analysts and experts.
The March 2018 new-vehicle SAAR of 17.4 million, up from 16.7 million in 2017, marked the seventh straight month of more than 17 million SAAR and the third best March on record.
“Cars continue to experience sharp declines in the market, with sales last month falling 9 percent compared to year-earlier levels. Trucks and SUVs continued to gain share,” analysts said.
The latest commentary from Comerica Bank also touched on new-vehicle sales, noting how challenging it is to project future figures.
“Forecasting auto sales is now a two-handed argument,” Comerica Bank chief economist Robert Dye said.
“On the one hand, strong economic conditions are supportive of ongoing auto sales,” Dye continued. “On the other hand, sales were declining through the first eight months of 2017, then came the surge in sales in September as a result of hurricane damage along Gulf Coast.
“We expect to see gradually easing auto sales this year,” he added.
Trends and economic momentum
Cox Automotive closed its latest index update by noting some general economic news.
Analysts mentioned the fourth quarter's real GDP growth rate was revised upward to 2.9 percent from its previous 2.5 percent.
“Expectations remain for a continuation of accelerated growth this year due in part to increased consumer spending and business investment resulting from recent tax reform,” Cox Automotive said.
“Despite consumer confidence last month experiencing a moderate decline from a 17-year high in February, largely due to stock market volatility, consumer spending expectations remain high due to tax cuts, strong wage growth and the robust labor market,” the company went on to say.
Dye also discussed an important component in dealerships turning vehicles — their customers having a job to generate income and pay their installment contract.
Dye explained the official federal employment data for March was “eye-catching” as firms increased employment by just 103,000 jobs on net, “well below consensus expectations” of about 185,000 for the month. He pointed out the miss in March payrolls comes on the heels of a robust 326,000 job gain in February.
“The March slump looks like mean reversion right now,” Dye said. “If it is followed by a weak April, that is another story, but other indicators point to ongoing moderate job growth this spring.
“The unemployment rate stayed at 4.1 percent for the sixth consecutive month,” he continued. “We still expect it to edge lower, but the rate of decline has clearly eased.
“Average hourly earnings increased by 0.3 percent for the month and are up 2.7 percent over the previous year,” Dye went on to say.