The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.
The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.
Postings are weekly.
Auto Sales Accelerating
"My pappy said 'Son, you're gonna drive me to drinkin' if you don't stop drivin' that hot rod Lincoln.'"
—Charley Ryan, 1958
Automobiles have loomed large in the American experience since Henry Ford's Tin Lizzie—the fabled Model T—first rolled off the assembly line in 1908. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, a favorite pastime of American youth was hot-rodding (or so I've been told by my much, much older siblings). Cars have inspired countless songs, including Charley Ryan's "Hot Rod Lincoln" and "Beep, Beep," a tempo-changing ditty from 1958 about a Nash Rambler and a Cadillac. And in the 1973 movie American Graffiti, who can forget the iconic 1932 Deuce Coupe driven by John Milner or Toad's 1958 Impala? It was all about the cars!
And it appears consumers feel pretty much the same way. The one shining star throughout this recovery in the wake of the Great Recession has been the growth in unit sales of motor vehicles. I think it's safe to say that folks are buying new rides; it's just that simple. Although retail sales have been growing modestly, motor vehicle sales have been one of the driving forces (OK, yes—pun intended) behind the upward movement seen overall.
Light vehicle sales continued rising in June, reaching a postrecession high of 16.9 million units (the seasonally adjusted annual rate; see the chart).
This growth can also been seen when looking at consumer credit outstanding. Consumer credit is debt that a consumer enters into with the intent of making an immediate purchase. There are two types of consumer credit: revolving and nonrevolving. Let's look for a moment at nonrevolving credit, which is defined as an installment loan in which the amount borrowed (plus interest) is repaid at set intervals for the life of the loan. As the chart below shows, nonrevolving credit has been growing over roughly the same period as vehicle sales, which is not surprising when you consider that vehicle loans account for roughly 40 percent of this type of credit.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, automobile sales declined 0.2 percent in June. However, a year-over-year comparison shows that vehicle sales increased 7.0 percent (see the chart). The consensus among our regional auto dealer contacts have indicated they've seen a steady increase in year-to-date sales and are expecting "sales for the remainder of the year to be fairly robust."
Historically, auto sales fluctuate quite a bit. But as you can see, the chart above supports the claim that vehicle sales have shown strong growth compared with total retail sales since the end of the recession. These data provide insight into consumer spending trends. Although this is just one data series in a long list of economic indicators we follow, I think it's fair to say this one gives a better understanding of consumer behavior.
So we'll keep our eye on this indicator. And remember, "Beep-beep, beep-beep. His horn went beep-beep-beep."
By Chris Viets, a REIN analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch
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Tennessee’s Auto Industry: Pitfalls and Potholes
The automotive industry in Tennessee is one of the big drivers of the state’s economy. Nissan established its first U.S. manufacturing facility in Smyrna in the early 1980s, and auto-related investments have grown in the state ever since. General Motors opened a plant in Spring Hill in 1990, and Volkswagen opened its Chattanooga plant in 2011. These three facilities collectively employ more than 12,000 workers, a total that doesn’t include the vast amount of automotive suppliers that call Tennessee home. Currently, Tennessee is the largest employer of auto-industry workers in the South.
Coming out of the Great Recession, Tennessee is now well positioned to continue its standing as a competitive destination for the automotive industry. In October 2013, the Brookings Institute produced a report titled “Drive! Moving Tennessee’s Automotive Sector Up the Value Chain.” The report pointed out the Volunteer State’s various advantages in the auto industry, which included its geographic location, strong transportation infrastructure, and favorable cost structure.
The report also shared some interesting employment numbers. For example, Tennessee’s share of auto-manufacturing employment in North America increased to an all-time high of 3.3 percent by the end of 2012. Also, more than 12 percent of all jobs created in Tennessee since the recession are related to the auto industry. Needless to say, carmaking is important to the state’s economic health.
The Brookings report also pointed out some competitive challenges and pitfalls the state will need to navigate in the coming years:
- Cost pressures: Input costs continue to rise, as does the consumer’s demand for greater value. Production increases in low-wage countries will continue to add pressure, even though the labor-cost gap between U.S. locations and low-cost countries is closing.
- Demographics and workforce: Technology advances have made the automotive-manufacturing workplace much more sophisticated. The challenges to find an adequately trained workforce will be a constant challenge.
- Technology: The entire automobile production system and product line will require constant technological upgrades to keep pace with changing regulatory requirements. For innovations to be effective, they will need to reach far into the automaking supply chain.
The Brookings report also suggested that the state lacks a strategic approach to maintaining a business-friendly environment for advanced industries. For example, Tennessee ranks in the bottom fifth of states in terms of tax competitiveness for new research-and-development firms and labor-intensive manufacturing.
The report also indicated that holes exist in Tennessee’s workforce-development programs. The state falls short in literacy, numeracy, and educational attainment, gaps that complicate the state’s ability to ensure the availability of an educated workforce for the auto industry. Also pointed out in the report was the state’s lack of research and development activity in the auto sector. The state also lacks a fertile technology network that caters to auto-sector suppliers, particularly the smaller ones.
Despite all these factors, the future for Tennessee’s auto industry looks bright. The state has momentum and the necessary resources to adapt to future challenges. Tennessee has the continent’s broadest automaking supply chain, a huge advantage in today’s auto-manufacturing environment. Past success does not guarantee future performance, but hopefully Tennessee can avoid the potholes on the road ahead.
By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed’s Nashville Branch
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General Motors reopens Tennessee plant as it seizes market share
Cranking out more than 207,000 vehicles in September, General Motors was the nation's largest auto manufacturer by volume and has gained the most volume in the first nine months of 2011. Conversely, Toyota has lost the most volume so far in 2011 (down 116,793 units from this point last year). GM has been aggressively seeking a cut of Toyota's market share since the supply chain disruptions earlier this year, but recently the firm has announced plans that hint they'd like to keep that increased market share—and perhaps expand it.
Note: Auto production was up 10 percent in September 2011 compared with one year earlier as the domestic Big Three automakers continued to pick up market share.
In a closely followed round of bargaining, GM announced last Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with the United Auto Workers that would add 6,400 manufacturing payrolls to GM facilities around the country. Part of this agreement, though very unconventional, has residents of a small town about 30 miles south of Nashville very excited. It's extremely rare for auto facilities to reopen once closed, but part of the agreement reached last week will once again get gears moving at GM's Spring Hill, Tennessee, plant.
Plant history and new beginnings
The facility opened in Spring Hill in 1990, originally producing the Saturn. The plant was an economic boon for the area, causing the population of sleepy Spring Hill to grow twentyfold. However, nearly twenty years from the date of opening, the factory, like many others, began feeling the pains of the sluggish global economy. In an attempt to adapt to changing economic conditions, the plant underwent a major retooling phase in 2008 when GM transitioned from producing Saturn vehicles to a crossover SUV, the Chevrolet Traverse. However—to make a long, painful story short—it wasn't enough to save the facility, and GM announced its closure in June 2009, ironically the month that marked the official end of the recession.
Roughly 30 miles south of Nashville, the town of Spring Hill, Tennessee, is witnessing a rare occurrence: GM's auto production facility there is reopening.
In May 2009, the unemployment rate in Maury County, Tennessee, was an already-elevated 11.8 percent. With the closing of the factory doors in June 2009, the unemployment rate in the county skyrocketed to 17.3 percent. The unemployment rate has remained elevated for the county since the factory's closing. Although approximately 3,000 workers were impacted by this closure, some workers initially avoided the unemployment line as the GM plant continued to build engines for other GM cars as well as performing operations related to stamping, polymers, and providing service parts and powertrain operations.
One possible explanation for the dip in Maury County's unemployment rate (see the chart below) shortly after the plant's closing was a reallocation of labor to Lansing, Michigan, home of another GM plant where some Spring Hill employees were offered positions (thus causing a decrease in the number of unemployed, which yielded a lower unemployment rate for months following the plant's closing.). Even still, the rate for Maury County is sticking stubbornly around an unlucky 13 percent (as of August 2011, it was 12.7 percent).
Now, however, initial reports from GM estimate a new 1,700 jobs will be created at the Spring Hill facility. Of these jobs, 600 will produce one model, while another 1,100 workers would focus on the production of the second model. In an area where there were 31,190 employees working across all industries in August, there's certain to be a substantial positive impact from increasing employment by roughly 5 percent of the current number of employed people. The plant is already undergoing capital investments that suggest hiring would begin early next year.
Southeastern states hold advantage in recruiting new foreign auto plants
Southeastern states have particularly had success landing assembly plants opened by foreign automaker in the U.S., as explained in the newly released third quarter edition of the Atlanta Fed's magazine, EconSouth. By offering tax breaks, state-funded training programs and other incentives, Southeastern states have secured over half of the foreign automaker assembly plants opened in the United States since 1990. Tennessee could be viewed as a leader of the pack in automotive manufacturing strength; the state has been ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row by Business Facilities, a national economic development publication.
Evidence of this can be seen in the recent opening of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga as well as Nissan's lithium ion battery plant, which is currently under construction. But last week's announcement by GM has left Tennessee residents and the state's leaders excited about potential positive employment growth in the manufacturing sector from domestic automakers. At first glance, research economists familiar with the automotive industry believe the Spring Hill plant announcement of 1,700 positions could offer a total gain of 6,000 jobs to Tennessee, once an estimate of indirect job creation is included.
By Mark Carter, an analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department, and Amy Pitts, an analyst for the Regional Economic Information Network at the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
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Automobile production's impact on the Southeast
Automobile production has become a major industry in the Sixth District and has significant impact on the economic health of the region. Recently, the near-term outlook for several regional assembly plants brightened because of two major developments. The first development was a stronger-than-expected rebound in national vehicle sales at year-end. The second piece of positive news concerned changes in the production mix announced by some regional auto manufacturers. Additional facilities recently opened or scheduled to begin production also bodes well for the future of the auto industry in the region.
National vehicle sales rose in December, up to 11.2 million units compared to 10.9 in November 2009 and 10.3 million in December 2008. Although economic uncertainties such as high unemployment and low consumer confidence will likely continue to pressure auto sales, the reported progress is encouraging.
The national economic downturn had a drastic impact on auto production and auto assembly utilization rates. According to MonthlyAutocast.com, national and Southeastern plants' utilization rates, defined as the share of vehicle production volumes to plants' capacity, dropped to 42 percent in early 2009. By the fourth quarter of 2009, however, utilization rates climbed to over 60 percent as most automakers rebuilt vehicle inventories depleted by the "cash for clunkers" program. According to Cliff Swenson, editor of MonthlyAutocast.com, December 2009 capacity was 71 percent, a bit higher than in November, but still anemic at best. Swenson noted that although at year-end dealers were keeping leaner vehicle inventories, with business picking up, a need to rebuild inventories, and higher exports, he estimated that capacity utilization rates will steadily rise in the next two years.
Favorable developments for changes in the production mix of several automakers have also brightened the near-term outlook for auto production. According to the December 2009 sales report from JD Power & Associates, the sales pace of fuel-efficient autos like the Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, and others far outperformed the year-over-year 7 percent increase for all vehicles.
Additionally, several new facilities have begun or will soon begin vehicle production in the region—for example, Kia in West Point, Ga., and Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. Increased assembly will not only result in additional jobs at the plants themselves but for suppliers as well. Auto industry employment trends from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the importance of auto assembly production in job creation at the companies of parts suppliers. According to BLS data (NAICS 3361 and 3363), one job in an assembly plant supported 2.8 jobs in motor vehicle parts industries during 2008. These facts are confirmed by many communities in the region that have seen the spread of jobs in the parts suppliers industry around the fastest-growing regional assembly plants.
The chart below gives an outlook for regional auto production:
Highlights regarding future auto production in the region:
- According to MonthlyAutocast.com, future production estimates for eight regional producers are much higher than the depressed volumes reported in 2009. Several regional auto producers recently announced plans to adjust their production mix to rapidly changing vehicle demands.
- Automotive News reported that Mercedes Benz USA announced plans to produce its C-class sedans at its plant in Vance, Ala., with expected production starting in 2014. The Vance plant currently produces the M-class SUV and R and GL crossovers, with some shipments exported to Europe. With a nearly 60 percent utilization rate, during 2009 this plant produced about 91,000 vehicles, far below the 150,000 assembled a year earlier.
- In late 2009, Kia Motors, a subsidiary of Hyundai, started production of its Sorento crossover at its West Point, Ga., plant, with an annual estimated production of 100,000 vehicles by late 2010. This is a sister company to the Montgomery, Ala., plant that assembles the Hyundai's Sonata and Santa Fe models. Currently, demand for Hyundai vehicles is strong with some models taking market share from discontinued domestic models.
- Nissan plans to add capacity for a new wave of light commercial vehicles, including the Leaf, the nation's first electric vehicle, which would start production in late 2011. According to company officials, Nissan is expanding its Canton and Smyrna, Ga., facilities to update its production mix to more fuel-efficient vehicles. This news is important for a regional company with the largest output (about 500,000 vehicles scheduled to be assembled in 2010).
- Decisions for Toyota's Tupelo, Miss., plant are wild cards in the regional production game. News reports from Tokyo are pointing to the company's continued interest in adding production in the United States, its largest and most profitable market. The $1.3 billion plant was to open this year and produce the Prius, but these plans were cancelled in late 2008 as fuel prices dropped and vehicle demand weakened.
- Volkswagen is opening a $1 billion facility in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2011 and plans to employ 2,000 workers. Production plans are supported by recent strong demand for VW products and by company officials recently stating plans to more than double its sales in the United States.
The outlook for the automobile industry in the Southeast, like the outlook for the nation, shows signs of a slow recovery.
By Gus Uceda, a senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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Looking ahead to 2010
January is the month for outlooks. The Atlanta Fed's 2010 Outlook for the region starts by noting that:
"The region, like the rest of the United States, weathered a difficult year in 2009, but indications of a turnaround in the economy suggest a less rocky 2010. However, daunting challenges remain before Southeasterners can be confident of a full and lasting recovery."
The outlook goes on to describe current and expected performance in several sectors. Here are a few of the highlights:
The decline in initial unemployment claims suggests that job losses will continue to ease into the next year. In 2008, when employment losses accelerated, the big question was, When would job losses subside? In 2009, as job losses eased in parts of the Southeast and the nation as a whole, the question turned to, When would employment expand and labor markets recover?
Two factors should support employment growth in 2010. As of Oct. 31, 2009, Southeastern states received less than 35 percent of the federal stimulus funds they were awarded, and this influx of funding should continue to fortify the jobs picture in 2010. Additionally, after four quarters of contraction, the U.S. economy expanded in the third quarter of 2009, which should encourage hiring.
On the other hand, a number of factors could dampen employment recovery. Before hiring, firms will likely rely on current workers for increased productivity. Several Atlanta Fed regional business contacts across the Southeast have indicated that they want to see a few months of sustained growth before they consider increasing hours for current workers or recalling laid-off workers, suggesting that employers may require even longer sustained growth before they hire new workers.
Once firms begin to hire, the rate of hiring may be weak compared with previous expansions. Some business contacts indicated that they have not only reduced their work forces but have structurally changed their firms so they might need fewer workers in the future. Furthermore, the large number of firms closing across the Southeast produced permanent layoffs. For example, the region's auto parts manufacturers will continue to feel the pinch from auto plant closings. Despite some recent improvements in the economy and easing of job losses, Southeastern labor markets are far from recovered.
Auto production and manufacturing
The outlook for Southeastern auto production in 2010 is mixed. Factors such as imbalances among vehicle production and consumer demand, tight credit markets, and low consumer confidence will continue to limit discretionary spending on autos and thus production flows.
On the positive side, foreign automakers are investing heavily in the region, and the economic ripple effects will be felt for years to come. Volkswagen is opening a $1 billion facility in Chattanooga, Tenn., in late 2010 or early 2011 and plans to employ 2,000 workers. Parts suppliers for the new plant will create more than 11,000 additional jobs, according to a University of Tennessee study. Kia Motors also opened its West Point, Ga., plant in the third quarter of 2009 to manufacture its Sorento model, a move that will bring 1,200 jobs to the area and have economic effects felt fully in 2010.
Manufacturers other than automakers are also putting down Southeastern roots. Mitsubishi's Pooler, Ga., plant producing advanced steam and gas turbines and servicing turbines used in power generation is expected to add 500 jobs to the region in early 2010. High-tech firm GS Yuasa is scheduled to open its doors, creating 100 jobs in Roswell, Ga., producing lithium-ion battery packs. NCR is already making ATMs in Columbus, Ga., and plans to employ 870 people during the next three years. Additionally, Huiheng Medical is opening a Baton Rouge, La., plant that will manufacture radiation treatment devices, creating 300 jobs in the area.
In the coming year, Southeastern housing markets will continue their recovery, but activity will remain weak by historical standards. Bank-owned properties will continue to come to market, particularly in Florida and Georgia, and will continue to depress home prices and keep construction activity in check. Homebuilders have found it difficult to compete against bank-owned properties that have typically sold below replacement cost.
Southeast commercial real estate (CRE) markets will remain challenging in 2010 although activity should stabilize and slowly improve during the year. Construction backlogs are currently at very low levels across most of the region, and financing is likely to remain tight, particularly for CRE projects. Consequently, commercial development should remain at low levels, and projects will remain largely build-to-suit.
Take a look at the entire issue of EconSouth for more detail and reports on other sectors as well.
In addition to the Atlanta Fed's outlook, several university research centers produce economic outlooks for their regions. These centers are part of our Local Economic Analysis and Research Network (LEARN), and most produce updates to their outlooks throughout the year.
By Michael Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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