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Super-commuters, sub-prime loans and other car-sales stories

used cars

By Flickr user Charles Williams

That famous Detroit-centric “Halftime in America” ad during the Super Bowl a few weeks ago subtly touted the auto industry’s turnaround, and other sources are starting to echo the cry as we head toward another monthly sales report. And according to this Associated Press story from Monday, “Detroit automakers race to keep up with sales,” it’s going to be a good one.

Given that good news and the auto industry and gas prices being so tip-of-the-tongue in this primary season, you might want to rev up a car-related econ story; there are plenty afoot that span a number of beats, from workplace to financial services to energy to retail.

Here’s a sample of ideas based on a number of current hooks:

The AP story cited above includes mention of automakeres and parts makers scrambling to keep the supply chain full; needless to say if your region is home to components manufacturers, raw material producers or even the trucking firms that keep those parts moving, you’ll want to see if demand momentum has led to any hiring or expansion or other ripple effect on the local economy.

And as this Bloomberg Econoday post notes, January was the first time in nine months that the car sales rate exceeded the truck sales rate.  Is that just a statistical blip or have small businesses filled pent-up demand for light-duty pickups and other work vehicles?  You might want to nose around contractors and other local firms that use trucks to talk about their buying history and plans as a sort of bellwether of the local small business clime.

According to MarketWatch, a new Experian credit bureau report says that subprime auto loans to people with dubious credit are on the rise.   In fact, the Ally Financial chief reportedly said in a conference call that the market was reflecting “crazy, irrational competition” in the subprime market.  Is this a signal that lenders believe that even less-reliable borrowers are likely to have more stable income sources than in the past couple of years, or is the low-interest-rate environment enabling financial services firms – hungry to replace demand for home loans– to take more risks?  Why would they be competing for subprime consumers?   These are all good questions for analysts, economists and banking regulators in your state.  And you might talk with some consumer protection groups, including the state attorney general, reputable credit-counseling firms and national groups, about caveats for those taking out high-risk loans.   Are lenders adopting any extreme measures – like installing GPS to track risky borrowers - or otherwise using technology to protect their investments?

Auto dealers are another angle; what are they doing to improve the buying experience and woo on-the-fence car buyers?   This Automotive News report about how Ford is giving its dealers financial aid to spruce up is a good read and might prompt questions for other brand retailers in your shopping district.

And last, I couldn’t resist adding this Huffington Post piece about super commuters.  It’s a perennial story but one worth looking into now for a fun feature on which vehicles are popular among those with hours-long commutes, and how they rig them for maximum productivity and comfort.  Do supercommuters go for fuel mileage or comfort?  Do they use portable appliances for food and drink, or to power multimedia gadgets?  Hands-free telecomm equipment or news via satellite radio?  Audio books or motivational tapes?  Post a blurb on your site seeking super-commuter input – and get them to rate the pros and cons of the vehicles they drive for a real-life look at what drivers are seeking from automakers these days.

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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