Cash for Clunkers – Who’s The Winner…

The government’s “cash for clunkers” program, which offers credits between $3,500 and $4,500 to those disposing of gas-guzzling vehicles and buying new, more fuel-efficient cars, is bolstering auto sales – and auto makers.

After the initial $1 billion apportioned to the program was rapidly drained, a proposal to top up the funds with an additional $2 billion passed the Senate Thursday by 60 to 37 votes and was signed by President Obama without delay. So far the program (formally the Car Allowance Rebate System, or “CARS”) has led to about 250,000 cars being sold.

As one of the goals of the program was to get more fuel-efficient cars on the road, it should not come as a surprise that some of the best-selling cars are foreign makes. In fact, as of the latest data available, four out of five new cars purchased through the program are manufactured by non-U.S. companies like Toyota and Honda. As the program has won its additional funds, the hard-hit auto industry will likely benefit from incentive-related sales for a little longer, despite some indications of the waning interest. It’s also important to note that in addition to the U.S., other countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and China also offer several measures (consumer credits, tax breaks, subsidies) that are boosting the industry. It was reported that Russia is also considering similar measures for domestic cars. It’s very likely that cash-strapped consumers taking advantage of the program, while getting a good deal on a new car, will have less money in their pockets for other discretionary purchases. And if the economy does not improve significantly by the time the additional $2 billion runs out (which is unlikely), “cash for clunkers” will have revved the auto industry’s engine only temporarily. However, this extra boost should prove helpful to the strongest companies in the business who are getting an incremental advantage over competitors.

One such company is Toyota, a leader in fuel-efficient cars. Toyota, which gets more than a fourth of its sales in North America, holds a second place in cars purchased under the program. Recently, it has provided investors with a look into its future as it released operational results for the first quarter of its fiscal 2010. Despite remaining in the red, the company is now more optimistic about the near-future. Toyota now expects higher sales in Japan for the first time in five years as the result of the government-sponsored program for promoting fuel-efficient vehicles. Its earlier forecasts did not include the effects of government incentives at all. Toyota also narrowed its expectations for full-year operating loss to 750 billion yen from 850 billion yen, a significant improvement. Toyota’s balance sheet remains strong and continues to be a significant long-term positive. While purchases prompted by the governments’ incentives do not necessarily reflect sustained demand, the boost they are giving to Toyota is already helping its near-term results. I like the company because of its industry dominance, which is likely to improve as the industry goes through the slowdown. Toyota’s recent guidance may prove conservative as its technological dominance and financial strength will continue helping it to win over competition.

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