ISSN 2330-717X

Americans Aren’t Giving Up Their Cars – OpEd

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By Ryan McMaken*

Auto loan delinquencies surged in 2018, rising to 2.36 percent, which was the highest rate since the third quarter of 2010.

Bloomberg reports:

More Americans than ever are at least three months behind on their auto loans, a sign that the U.S. economy may have little growth left in the tank.

The number of loans at least 90 days late exceeded 7 million at the end of last year, the highest total in the two decades the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has kept track. Expressed as a percentage of total debt, the delinquency rate is the highest since 2012, as overall borrowing has also increased.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Household Debt and Credit Report.
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Household Debt and Credit Report.

This isn’t to say that automobiles are going away as an industry. In spite of repeated claims that people aren’t buying cars anymore — and that millennials would rather walk everywhere — overall spending on auto sales reached new highs in 2017 and 2018.

On the other hand, per capita spending on auto has still not recovered from the high of the year 2000. This, however, does not prove that people are getting rid of their cars. It may only mean that they are economizing on cars.

Source: Census Bureau, Monthly Retail Trade
Source: Census Bureau, Monthly Retail Trade

For example, the American Community Survey’s data through 2017 suggests very little change in recent years, as far as vehicles per households. According to the survey, the number of households with one vehicle has been virtually unchanged since 1990 around 33 percent. Since 2000, the number of households with two vehicles has only slightly ticked downward from 38 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2017.

Source: Transportation Energy Data Book,  Table 8.4, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 2010-2016 data – U.S. Bureau  of the Census, American Community Survey, Table CP04, 2018.
Source: Transportation Energy Data Book, Table 8.4, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 2010-2016 data – U.S. Bureau of the Census, American Community Survey, Table CP04, 2018.

Meanwhile, since 2000, the number of households with three or more cars has increased from 18 percent to 21 percent. (Household size has decreased over the same period.)

In other words, we don’t see anything here to suggests that American households are scaling back the number of vehicles per household, even if they may be cutting back on how much they are spending.

After all, not everyone concludes he absolutely needs an $80,000 pickup truck.

It remains unclear if the Great Recession or the allegedly different attitudes of the Millennials has fundamentally changed auto availability per household.

The short term effects of the Recession are clear. Looking at the average number of vehicles per person or per household, we do indeed see a drop off in the number of light vehicles in the period following the recession. Looking at a broader timeline for the past twenty-five years, however, the trend remains remarkably flat.

As far as Millennial demand goes, CNBC reported in 2017 that “Consumers, ages 21 through 34, are taking out new auto loans at a 21 percent higher rate than Gen X borrowers did when they were that age.” And in 2016, the Associated Press pointed out “millennials — especially the oldest ones — are these days buying cars in big numbers. They just had a late start.” The article also noted that in California, the country’s biggest car market, millennials outpaced boomers for the first time as car buyers. Millennials’ share of the new-car market jumped to 28% in 2015.

Given all of this, there may be three takeaways about auto ownership right now:

1. Americans appear to still like their cars. The vehicles-per-household data from the Census Bureau shows little change at all since 2000, and overall averages suggest a flat trend over the past twenty-five years.

2. The American standard of living — in terms of household access to vehicles — does not appear to have changed significantly since the year 2000. During the 1980s, and to a lesser extent the 1990s, we did continue to see declines in the households with no vehicles, and increases in the number of households with three or more vehicles. After the 1990s, we see little change.

3. Millennials aren’t necessarily abandoning the idea of auto ownership. There have been many claims that this is the case. But many have also claimed that Millennials mostly want to move to central urban areas. In both cases, the data has been inconclusive. It appears many Millennials do indeed wish to move out of the city — and many will need to own cars to carry on life in a suburban or exurban environment.

*About the author: Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western

Source: This article was published by the MISES Institute

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MISES

The Mises Institute, founded in 1982, teaches the scholarship of Austrian economics, freedom, and peace. The liberal intellectual tradition of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) guides us. Accordingly, the Mises Institute seeks a profound and radical shift in the intellectual climate: away from statism and toward a private property order. The Mises Institute encourages critical historical research, and stands against political correctness.

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