Money for Nothing?

Those no-interest car loans could be killing the economy.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, corporate America grappled with the dilemma of how to respond to the terrorist attacks. Philanthropy for the victims was a natural reflex. The more thorny question was how to encourage people to spend again without appearing to use the tragedy as an excuse for marketing.

No effort succeeded better than the automobile companies’ introduction of zero-percent financing. The week after the attack, General Motors extended interest-free loans for 2001 and 2002 model cars in its “Keep America Rolling” campaign. Its imagery echoed the “let’s roll” mentality of the passengers on United Flight 93 and subtly underscored the fact that GM was one of two remaining American car companies. 

It worked, too. Recovering from a national shell shock, carbuyers attracted by the cheap credit streamed into showrooms in October 2001 and have kept car sales at a remarkably high level ever since.

As a result, zero-percent car financing has emerged as one of the more enduring—and potentially troubling—commercial outcomes of Sept. 11. A year after the attacks, giving away money for nothing has been transformed from a temporary booster shot into a nearly addictive narcotic that the automakers inject whenever sales lag. Though it was originally scheduled to last for just six weeks, GM has made some form of free financing available for six of the past 12 months—and last week, the company announced yet another round to come. In virtually every instance, competitors Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and, to a lesser extent Toyota, have followed GM’s lead.

Fifty years ago, former GM President Charles Wilson proclaimed, “What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” But today, there’s reason to wonder whether zero-percent financing is good for GM and whether it’s good for the country.

Cars are crucial to the economy because they remain the largest single items, aside from homes, that consumers purchase. Because new vehicle sales—$440 billion in 2001—account for a substantial portion of the U.S. economy, greater production of cars is plainly good for the economy. Indeed, the zero-percent financings have made the big auto companies significant players in today’s struggling recovery. U.S. auto sales rose a stunning 13.5 percent in August from the year before, to a 17.1 million annual rate, the strongest pace since zero-percent financing was introduced. As telecommunications companies shed thousands of jobs in the past year, GM and Ford have kept their factories, and those of their suppliers, humming.

But the sales have come at a heavy cost: While the zero-percent financing offers were a smart public-relations move, they’re a lousy tactic for financial management.

From the beginning, Wall Street analysts fretted that the inducements would simply steal sales from the future, and that the strong sales they produced were unsustainable. The fear was that every time sales slip, or a company faces a loss in market share, automakers would give away money—and that’s exactly what’s happening. (Of course, the ultimate day of reckoning may have been postponed because the automakers have continued to offer the incentives.) What’s worse, savvy customers may simply start waiting until the money is free before they buy a car. As Jesse Eisinger noted in the Wall Street Journal last week,“Of all the things GM said [in its discussion of August results] the extension of the 0% financing is the most ominous.”

Indeed, Wall Street’s anxiety about free financing could explain why, over the past year, the stocks of both GM and Ford have underperformed the S&P 500. GM’s stock is down 20 percent since last September and now hovers at its early 1998 levels. Ford has slumped more than 40 percent and stands at a level not seen since late 1992. Both have severely lagged behind DaimlerChrysler, which is less dependent on the U.S. market.

Like Sears and General Electric, whose financing arms generate outsized profits, the automakers have traditionally reaped a significant portion of profits from their lending operations. That’s why interest-free financing has hurt profits at Ford and could do the same to GM. In the second quarter, partially due to the massive incentives it offered, Ford made less than $8 in profit for each car it sold.

The financing moves may also be cutting into the profits of other companies that have nothing to do with the auto industry. With zero-percent financing and low mortgage rates, American consumers in the past 12 months have shown an immense appetite for buying new cars and homes, even as unemployment rises. While our capacity for debt is seemingly endless—as a nation, consumers owe $1.7 trillion—all the money spent on cars and homes may represent cash not flowing into sectors of the economy where credit doesn’t come on such easy terms.

The retail sector, in particular, is suffering. The back-to-school season has been a bust for many large retailers: At Wal-Mart, same-store sales in August rose a disappointing 3.8 percent, far below the expected increase of 4 percent to 6 percent. In recent weeks, analysts have blamed carmakers rather than the slack economy for disappointing results everywhere from Sears to Circuit City. In an effort to generate customer interest, some electronics chains have even begun offering their own zero-percent financing. But the free loans are far more damaging to such chains, which are used to charging double-digit interest rates.

Still, for an automaker like GM, the PR value of zero-percent financing may be worth the financial cost. Selling cars is a heavily promotional business. Customers rarely pay the sticker price and frequently choose from a range of inducements that may include extra features, rebates, delayed payments, or reduced financing terms. GM and other automakers may not have boosted their earnings per share or stock prices significantly through these moves. But by simplifying the terms, and couching the inducements in patriotic language and imagery, they have made a common business practice look like a selfless contribution to the common welfare.