In a move that echoes recent history, Fiat Chrysler has been making more cars and trucks than dealers in the U.S. are willing to accept, with Bloomberg reporting that at one point the automaker had built up a glut of around 40,000 unordered vehicles. That’s led some dealers to accuse FCA of reviving the dreaded “sales bank” accounting practice of obscuring inventory to improve the balance sheet.
The company reportedly began building up its inventory of unordered cars this summer despite an industrywide slowdown in sales and an eagerness by some dealers to thin their inventories because rising interest rates are making it more expensive to hold unsold cars. The inventory build-up also coincided with Fiat Chrysler’s efforts to find a merger partner, first with Renault, which fell through, then last month’s announcement that it will merge with France’s PSA Group.
FCA denies any such scheme and tells Bloomberg the rising inventory is down to a new predictive analytics system designed to better square supply with demand from dealers that is helping the company save money and narrow the numbers of unsold vehicles. The company recently agreed to pay a $40 million civil penalty to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to settle a complaint that it paid dealers to report fake sales figures over a span of five years.
While no one is suggesting that FCA is in dire financial straits — the company saw higher than expected earnings in the third quarter and record profits in North America — the practice has strong historical precedent by Chrysler, which built up bloated inventories in the run-up to its two federal bailouts, in 1980 and 2009. It was also common at GM and Ford during the 2000s, when all three Detroit automakers struggled with excess manufacturing capacity and plummeting sales in the lead-up to the Great Recession.
Back in 2012, CFO Magazine wrote about a report that explained automakers’ rationale for the practice and how it works:
Say fixed costs for a given factory are $100, and that the factory can make 50 cars. Consumers, however, demand only 10. Under absorption costing, if the company makes all 50 cars, its cost-per-car is $2. If it makes only up to demand, or 10 cars, the cost-per-car is $10. Although each car adds variable costs for steel and other parts, if those costs are low, the company still has an incentive to make more cars to keep the cost-per-car down.
If the company makes all 50 cars but can only sell 10, its cost of goods sold will appear on its income statement as 10 cars at $2 per car, or $20, plus variable costs. The cost of making the other cars will land on the balance sheet as ending inventory.
Dealers hate the practice because they feel pressured to stock up on vehicles they don’t necessarily want and may struggle to sell.