不过这种理论有一个巨大的问题。海纳国际集团(Susquehanna International Group）分析师马修·斯托弗表示：“必须有人创造一种强大的商业模式”，而目前还没有人做到这一点。所以，尽管汽车制造商急切地想要开发出这种商业模式——无论是通过合作、研发还是并购，投资者依然会认为在当下购买任何汽车厂商的股票，都意味着对如今汽车行业的一次赌博，以及对未来的投机式赌博。
在美国汽车业巨头中，通用汽车对新一代驾驶技术的公开投入最大。该公司给拼车服务商Lyft投资了5亿美元，还斥资10亿美元收购了生产自动驾驶汽车感应器和软件的硅谷初创公司Cruise Automation，此外还有一些其他投入。Fidelity Select Automotive Portfolio公司投资组合经理安妮·罗森表示，仅仅基于这些因素就投资通用汽车，将是“真正投机性的举动”。不过从其他因素分析，购买通用汽车的股票却是合理的选择。在不到32美元的股价上，通用汽车目前的市盈率约为4倍，远低于行业平均值（9倍）——当然，它更是远远不及标普500指数荒谬的20倍市盈率。欢迎光临汽车业循环的春天。通用汽车已经承诺在2017年底前出资90亿美元回购股票，他们试图让投资者相信，即使衰退来临，他们的收益仍会增加。斯托弗表示，“虽然你在上一轮衰退期破了产，市场下一次并不会放你一马。”
讨论新一代汽车时，没有人可以忽略特斯拉。在首席执行官伊隆·马斯克的领导下，这家先驱性的公司已经通过其autopilot自动驾驶功能为汽车植入了一些有限的无人驾驶技术。与其他厂商不同，特斯拉并没有受到经济周期的影响，因为他们面对的奢侈品消费者有能力掏出9万美元甚至更多钱来买车。其Model 3轿车起售价约为3.5万美元，预计将在2017年底上市。说也奇怪，这款车可能会让该公司更易受到经济衰退的影响，因为一般收入的消费者也会成为他们的客户。不过，考虑到特斯拉的盈利能力堪忧，以及《财富》已经详细披露的现金流问题，许多投资者对特斯拉现在的股价分外警惕。特斯拉即将对SolarCity展开的收购，也给这只股票的投资前景蒙上了一层阴影。Argus Research公司的比尔·舍里斯基表示，未来的特斯拉不仅卖汽车和电池，还会卖太阳能板，这会“稀释整个故事”。
One of the auto industry’s worst attributes, from an investor’s standpoint, is its predictability. While car companies benefit when the economy rises, the road always turns back downhill, and automobile sales inevitably shift into reverse.
Industry watchers can see this dynamic playing out right now, even as 2017 models begin to roll onto dealers’ lots. In the first half of this year the auto industry’s revenues hit $151.8 billion, up 7.8% from the previous year. Vehicle sales are on pace to top the nearly 17.5 million cars and trucks sold in 2015. But the current run is “in extra innings,” says Adam Jonas, an analyst for Morgan Stanley: After six years of almost uninterrupted growth, August car sales dropped a sobering 4% year over year. And investors are already anticipating the end of the party. The S&P 500 Automobile Manufacturer’s index has dropped 8% this year. Shares of General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler FCAU 1.49% , Toyota TM -1.16% —heck, even tech darling Tesla—are all well below their 2014 or 2015 peaks.
So are auto stocks doomed to the same old repetitive commute from peak to trough? Maybe not. As cars become the epicenter of innovation, there’s a factor in play this time around that was absent the last time carmakers struggled. That, of course, is the rise of autonomous-driving technology, which could upend the business model of the industry in the not-too-distant future—in ways that carmakers and their investors could profit from. While it’s far too early to pick winners in the self-driving-car arms race, the current down cycle in auto stocks could let investors place some early bets at bargain prices.
Auto industry ¬insiders believe that in a world where self-driving tech becomes commonplace, the whole culture of driving will shift. Fewer people would own vehicles, and more would rent cars only when needed. (Think Uber, all the time, but driverless.) On the surface that sounds like a 70-car pileup in the making for automakers: Fewer car sales, after all, should mean less revenue.
But there are two factors that ease the pessimism. The first is that any shift will be both gradual and incomplete. Car-¬sharing works best in densely packed cities like New York or San Francisco, for example. And autonomous driving won’t fit the needs of all drivers, so the automakers will still have a big “traditional” car customer base for a long time.
What’s more, some analysts believe an autonomous-driving culture may actually give automakers a more profitable business model—one in which they sell services as well as vehicles. CitigroupC -0.46% analyst ItayMichaeli says automakers will profit not just by selling vehicles (to consumers and to ride-sharing services) but also through “revenues per mile” driven. Ford or GM could sell you or rent you the ride, and sell you services you consume while you’re not driving (streamed movies, for example). Michaeli says this model could let car manufacturers bring in double the amount of variable profits that they make today, and better yet, move “beyond the cycle” of consumer-driven peaks and troughs.
There’s one big problem with this theory: “Somebody has to create a compelling business model,” says Susquehanna International Group analyst ¬Matthew Stover, and nobody has done it yet. So while automakers angle to make it happen—whether through partnerships, R&D, or acquisition—investors should think of any present-day auto stock play as both a bet on today’s car industry and a very speculative bet on the future.
Among the companies with a big U.S. market presence, General Motors GM -0.12% has made the biggest public commitment to the new generation of driving tech. Along with other moves, it has invested $500 million in ride-sharing service Lyft and spent just over $1 billion to acquire Cruise Automation, a Silicon Valley startup that makes sensors and software for self-driving cars. Investing in GM based on those factors alone would be “a really speculative move,” notes Annie Rosen, portfolio manager of the Fidelity Select Automotive Portfolio. But it looks like a decent buy for other reasons. At under $32 a share, GM trades at just above four times earnings, which is far below the industry average of nine (and of course, far below the S&P 500’s absurd 20). Welcome to life in the auto cycle. GM has authorized $9 billion to buy back stock through the end of 2017: It’s trying to convince investors that it will still grow its earnings, even if a recession occurs. “When you went bankrupt last time” there was a recession, Stover says, “the market is not going to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
If investors have avoided GM of late, they’ve absolutely punished Ford Motor F 1.36% . Its shares have fallen 28% over the past 18 months, partly because the company made an ill-timed bet on eco-friendly cars, which haven’t sold as well since the price of gas plummeted. Through August, sales of the Fiesta and Focus, which feature Ford’s climate-friendly EcoBoost engine, are down 17% for 2016, and Ford’s sales for that month were down 8% year over year. “The stock has been under really great pressure,” says Stover, who adds that “Ford has validated the fears” by downgrading its outlook.
The sales slowdown hasn’t stalled Ford’s plans on the autonomous--technology front, though. The company has targeted 2021 as the year it will release a vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals, working with four startups to accomplish the feat. Morgan Stanley’s Jonas says that relatively speedy timetable is intended to give Ford an edge in the “fight for brains,” as it competes with Apple , Alphabet, other tech firms and the rest of Big Auto to attract software talent.
No discussion of New Age vehicles can leave out Tesla Motors TSLA 2.55% , since CEO Elon Musk’s pioneering firm already offers some—limited—autonomous technology in its cars through its autopilot feature. Tesla hasn’t been as vulnerable to economic cycles as other auto-makers, since its luxury-oriented customers can afford to pay $90,000 or more for a vehicle. Its Model 3 version, which will start at around $35,000, is scheduled for delivery in late 2017; that, oddly enough, could make the company more recession-sensitive, as average-income consumers become customers. But given its still hypothetical profits—and its growing cash-flow problem, which ¬Fortune has detailed—many investors are wary of Tesla’s stock at its current prices. The company’s impending acquisition of SolarCity also muddies the investing outlook. The fact that a future Tesla would sell not only vehicles and car batteries but also solar panels “dilutes the whole story,” says Bill Selesky of Argus Research.
The Tesla saga just underscores how hard it is to find autonomous-driving “pure plays” among publicly traded companies. Most makers of back-end autonomous sensors and software are fairly widely diversified. For example, Delphi Auto¬motive DLPH 0.43% , the big maker of electronic, engine, and safety systems, creates sensors for autonomous driving, including some used in a pilot project by the Singapore Land Transport Authority. But its autonomous efforts account for no more than 2% of its $15 billion in annual revenue right now. “We see them as well positioned” as the technology unfolds, says Jonas, but “not a safe haven” against traditional cycles in the auto market.
MobilEye may be the only pure autonomous play available. That company makes software and sensors that primarily work at what regulators call the tier-2 level of autonomy, where cars handle some functions on their own—the level you’re likely to see soonest on dealers’ lots. But as car companies build software internally, Mobileye’s market share could drop. Plus, the stock is not cheap.
The evolution of the auto industry over the next decade is going to be fascinating to watch. But it will be a long time before it creates any investing slam dunks.
Gearing up for a long drive
It’s likely to be a decade or more before self-driving technology makes a significant impact on the revenues of automakers and auto suppliers. But that isn’t stopping big companies in the field from souping themselves up for the race to come.
Big Tech Plays: Spent just over $1 billion to buy self-driving tech startup Cruise Automation; invested $500 million in ride-sharing service Lyft.
Big Picture: North American sales jumped 11% in the first half of 2016, but the stock trades for barely four times earnings. GM plans $9 billion worth of stock buybacks to encourage shareholders to stick around.
Big Tech Plays: Aims to release a vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals by 2021.
Big Picture: Ford’s stock has tumbled by almost a third over the past 18 months, due in part to the oil crash—the company made a big commitment to smaller cars, whose popularity has declined as gas prices dropped. Of course, what goes down may come up again; in the meantime Ford pays a dividend of nearly 5%.
Big Tech Plays: Acquiring SolarCity in a move that, among other things, could make Tesla’s battery technology cheaper and more powerful.
Big Picture: The arrival of the mass-market-oriented Model 3 late next year could be the turning point that boosts the company to profitability. But some investors fret that the SolarCity deal could muck up the company’s finances.
Big Tech Plays: Testing its sensors in self-driving cars in Singapore.
Big Picture: Self-driving tech accounts for no more than 2% of Delphi’s revenue, but its deep experience in automotive electronics and safety systems could give it an advantage in the long run. Morgan Stanley auto stock analyst Adam Jonas sees Delphi as “well positioned” for the technology’s evolution.