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Automakers Feeling Squeeze From Investors Despite Strong Sales

Hyundai Motor Co. vehicles sit on display for sale on the lot of  in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Patrick T. Fallon
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Hyundai Motor Co. vehicles sit on display for sale on the lot of in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, U.S.

After seven years of growth, the auto market is seeing weakness.

In April, sales were off by 4.7 percent. That's despite the continued robust sales of highly profitable SUVs and trucks. That's no big deal for an industry that just got off of two record seasons, but not so for investors.

The pain is being felt across the auto world.

This week, Ford CEO Mark Fields took heat for the company's stagnant share price at the company's annual meeting. While the company is the number one seller of trucks and SUVs, investors have been upset over the stock price given the market.

Bill Ford Jr., the executive chairman of his namesake's company, tried to reassure shareholders, according to The Detroit News.

"We're as frustrated as you are by the stock price," said Ford Jr. "Most of (the Ford family's) net worth is tied up in the company, and stock price matters a lot to us. We're frustrated, but our business is performing well. We're making investments both for today and for tomorrow, and I believe that's the right thing to do."

Ford has spent billions investing in new technology to prepare for the advent of autonomous vehicles, along with most of its top rivals. Michelle Krebs with AutoTrader says the industry is feeling the squeeze as it tries to anticipate change.

The problem, Krebs says, is that carmakers like Ford "have to continue to operate the current business, and set the company up for the future by making some investments, but who knows when the pay day will come."

The problems go beyond Ford

Volkswagen continues to be under investigation. Most recently, the company came under fire for payments to a labor union leader. And the company appears to be on the verge of another round of layoffs as VW tries to overcome years of scandal and billions in settlement payouts.

Executives at global giant Toyota are predicting a profit decline for the second year in a row.

"In an environment where sales are stagnating, it's tough that we need to invest in areas which won't generate profits due to paradigm shifts," said Akio Toyoda, the company's president last week.

Toyota has been hurt, in part, as it shifts to build more trucks and SUVs, as well as invest in billions in artificial intelligence and other technology in preparation for autonomous vehicles.

General Motors is facing a challenge by activist investor David Einhorn, the founder of Greenlight Capital. Einhorn, a major GM shareholder, has complained about the company's performance. He's proposing to split the company's common stock:

"GM's shares are barely trading above their 2010 IPO price despite an equity bull market, and there is a significant gap between the intrinsic value of GM and its stock price. Accordingly, GM has failed to create much long-term shareholder value. GM can fix this!"

The criticism from Einhorn discounts that GM has been consistently profitable, partly because of the billions the company has been bringing in selling highly profitable pickup trucks. GM's CEO Mary Barra has been praised by the industry despite the apparent weakness of her company's shares. Joann Muller of Forbes writes of Barra on the company's stock price:

"GM shares don't show it — they're stuck at 2010's post-bankruptcy IPO level — but General Motors is a different company under Barra. Gone are the empty promises and arrogant bluster. With Barra at the helm, there's a quiet confidence that if GM just sticks to its plan, good will eventually come. It's a classic case of under-promising and over-delivering, as in the first quarter, when GM soundly beat Wall Street's expectations with a 33% jump in net income."

Why all the shade from Wall Street? While truck profits are the present, autonomous or self driving car profits are somewhere in the future.

"This has happened before", says AutoTrader's Krebs. "There's always been the question of profits now or investing in the future. But what happens when Apple, or Tesla upends the industry."

She says when, or if, that happens, who was profitable this quarter will seem quaint.

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Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.