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Ford Motor Company (F), General Motors Company (GM): Auto Sales Surprise; Should You Be Buying?

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Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F)The recent retail sales report showed a surprise gain in motor vehicle sales.  Sales jumped 1% in the month of April after a 0.6% decline in March. Overall retail sales also surprised to the upside.

Based on the increase in motor vehicle sales and low oil prices, investors may see this as a good time to invest in auto manufacturers. However, there are several factors indicating that auto manufacturers may not be the ideal place to invest your money.

Uncle Ben

There is no doubt that Ben Bernanke’s decision to maintain interest rates at historically low levels has helped bolster auto sales. The ultra-low Fed Funds rate has led to cheaper automotive loans for buyers looking to upgrade their automobiles. The website Bankrate.com reports that the average rate for a 60-month auto loan is just 3%.

Ultra-low interest rates, like all good things, must come to an end.  While there is no clear time frame in place, given the recent run-up in the stock market, rates could begin to rise in the near future. Depending on how quickly a rate hike is executed, a subsequent rise in auto-loan rates could put a strain on new-vehicle sales.

Europe

Europe remains in the midst of a terrible recession, and automobile sales have suffered dramatically. New vehicle registrations for the month of March were down 10.2% year-over-year, and represented the 18th consecutive month of declines.

Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F)s sales slipped 15.8% for the month of March, and General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) saw an equally ugly decline of 12.6%. Auto-parts manufacturer Delphi Automotive PLC (NYSE:DLPH) is also feeling stress from Europe, with first-quarter 2013 revenue decreasing by 17% from the prior year. Even European heavyweight Volkswagen saw its revenue drop 9% for the month of March.

The European recession shows no signs of improving in the near term.  Unemployment remains at staggering and historically high levels, and a cohesive plan for the European Union still does not exist. Until the EU can find a way to improve the economy, the continent will continue to be a drag for auto manufacturers.

European Response

The issues in Europe clearly pose significant threats to the financial strength of Ford and General Motors Company (NYSE:GM).  As such, the company’s have created detailed response plans to address the needs of their European segments.

Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) is planning to bring an unprecedented 15 new global vehicles to Europe over the next five years in order to deliver a model lineup that is among the region’s freshest to drive revenue. The company is also seeking to strengthen its brand image in Europe by emphasizing class-leading quality, fuel efficiency, safety, and value.

Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) is also driving cost efficiencies in Europe by closing three facilities and reducing vehicle assembly capacity in the region by 18%.  Through these actions, the company plans to be profitable in Europe by mid-decade.

General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) is also looking to cut costs in Europe, and recently sold its transmission operation in France and closed a production facility in Germany.  The company hired a top executive from Volkswagen to serve as president of GM Europe starting March 1.

GM also plans to launch no less than 23 new Opel/Vauxhall vehicles between 2012 and 2016.  The first two of the new vehicles were in segments General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) did not previously compete in, and the company has seen strong demand for those vehicles. General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) states that through these measures, it hopes to achieve break-even EBIT results by mid-decade.

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