When 2011 began, auto industry analysts were almost giddy about the sector’s fast-improving fortunes, predicting that sales would accelerate from only 11.6 million vehicles in 2010 to more than 16 million in 2015. Unfortunately, a sluggish economy initially muted demand, and then production delays stemming from the Japan earthquake disaster in March hampered supply.
But as fears of a double-dip recession lessen, consumers are heading to dealer showrooms to replace that old bucket of bolts in the garage. That’s the big news from Tuesday’s Commerce Department report that October retail sales were stronger than expected, and it means selected auto dealer stocks that have been gaining speed should keep accelerating.
Vehicle sales rose by 0.4% in October. When combined with 4.2% growth in September, auto sales are running at a seasonally adjusted annual volume of 13.2 million vehicles — the highest level since August 2009. Back then, “Cash for Clunkers” was driving growth. Today, pent-up demand has consumers buying new cars again. Many dealers are expanding their network of auto lenders, making it easier for consumers to finance vehicles.
Despite the good news, possible headwinds loom. Some analysts fear that the release of pent-up demand has lifted vehicle sales into a short-lived bubble. “October’s sales numbers are certainly a bright spot in a sluggish economy, but it would be a mistake to believe that this momentum is the ‘new normal’,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds.com. “Unless early holiday incentives inspire droves of buyers in November, we don’t expect sales to increase on the same trajectory as we have seen in the last two months.”
But investors who keep one eye on the economy and the other on dealers’ fundamentals (and dividend yields) are buckled up for a smoother ride when the road gets bumpy. Here are four car dealer stocks that are hitting the gas:
Lithia Motors (NYSE:LAD). At $21.79, Lithia is trading more than 74% above its 52-week low of $12.49 this time last year. The stock currently is more than 20% above its 200-day moving average and 17% above its 50-day moving average. With a market cap of $577 million, LAD’s price-to-earnings to growth (PEG) ratio is 0.43, suggesting the stock is very undervalued (of PEG of 1.0 is considered fairly valued). The stock has a one-year return of more than 68% and pays a current dividend yield of 1.2%.
Group 1 Automotive (NYSE:GPI). At $47.11, Group 1 is trading more than 62% above its 52-week low of $33.31 last month. The stock is currently more than 15% above its 200-day moving average and 11% above its 50-day moving average. With a market cap of almost $1.1 billion, GPI’s PEG ratio is 0.62, suggesting it’s undervalued. The stock has a one-year return of more than 25% and pays a current dividend yield of nearly 1%.
Penske Automotive Group (NYSE:PAG). At $20.77, Penske is trading about 41% above its 52-week low of $14.72 last November. The stock is currently almost 5% above its 200-day moving average and more than 8% above its 50-day moving average. With a market cap of nearly $1.9 billion, PAG has a PEG ratio of only 0.69. The stock has a one-year return of nearly 40% and pays a current dividend yield of 1.6%.
Sonic Automotive (NYSE:SAH). At $15.06, Sonic is trading 61% above its 52-week low of $10.11 last month. The stock is currently nearly 12% above its 200-day and 50-day moving averages. With a market cap of $793.5 million, SAH has a PEG ratio of a mere 0.52. The stock has a one-year return of 22% and a current dividend yield of 0.66%.
As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the stocks named here.