At a Chevrolet dealer in Stuart, Florida on September 15, I learned that not-in-demand cars are selling at MSRP sticker price, leaving the dealer with $4000 more in profit than in the old days when the cars sold at invoice. In-demand cars continue to carry an additional markup. For example, an electric Chevy is $10,000 over sticker, as is a regular Corvette. A Z06 Corvette is $75,000 over sticker on those rare occasions when the dealer can get one.
Can you save some $$ by buying used? A three-year-old 2020 Corvette 3LT (the premium trim) is available for $95,800, which I’m sure is more than its original sticker price.
Let’s look at the Z06 Corvette. Here’s what Edmunds says about the simplest model:
According to the official prices, GM thought that the dealer would get about $7,000 in profit from selling this car. In the post-coronapanic world, however, the dealer will get $82,000 for taking an order (the difference between MRSP+$75,000 and invoice).
I’m wondering if this is why the car shortage has continued for so long. Ordinarily, if something goes up in price the producers get paid a lot more and begin working hard to increase production. If gasoline becomes more expensive, for example, gas stations don’t become insanely rich while oil producers keep getting the same old price. The gas station gets its usual small markup and the extra money for petroleum products goes to the oil company, precisely the signal that the market is supposed to give to producers in Econ 101. The legacy automakers, however, never got any financial signal that cars were in demand. Nearly all of extra money paid by consumers went to dealers, who responded by buying new beach houses, new business jets, new jet-powered helicopters for their kids, new yachts, European vacations, etc. The boost in auto prices, thus, spurred production of business jets more than production of cars.
I wrote about this back in 2022: Why aren’t cars (and pinball machines) auctioned as they come out of the factory?. The dealer agreement that I found did not prevent the manufacturer from abandoning a fixed retail/invoice price structure and instead simply auctioning cars to dealers or at least establishing a new market-based price every week. Nothing in the agreement required a manufacturer to keep the price to the dealer fixed for 6-12 months, as has been conventional for legacy automakers even during coronapanic.
Tesla, of course, has been a notable exception. The company has made frequent price adjustments throughout this period of lockdown-induced economic disruption. Thus, Tesla has had a financial incentive to maximize production, e.g., paying chip suppliers extra money if necessary to keep the lines going.
Let’s also consider the recent strike by the United Auto Workers, of whom roughly 146,000 work for the Detroit Three. They want a 40 percent pay increase to compensate for the inflation that the government says does not exist. Could the legacy car companies easily afford to pay this if they hadn’t been selling cars for far less than they were worth for nearly three years?
I think that the Detroit 3 have U.S. revenue of about $300 billion per year, combined. Let’s say that they could have gotten 10 percent more money by selling cars for what they were worth instead of selling them for whatever invoice price they’d established. That would have worked out to approximately $90 billion in additional revenue over three years. In other words, they could have given each UAW member a $600,000 coronapanic bonus and still had money left over to give to shareholders.
Should all of the executives at the Detroit 3 be fired? Every day they produced assets owned by shareholders, i.e., the cars coming off the assembly lines. Every day they sold those shareholder-owned assets for far less than they were worth. They enriched the dealers to whom they owed no fiduciary duty. They starved their own production facilities of the extra cash that could have been used to motivate suppliers, workers, etc. to maximize production and ease the supply shortage that has cost consumers so dearly (and helped to generate ugly inflation numbers). They failed to capture the cash that the UAW is now on strike to obtain.