The Truth About Channel Stuffing

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

Zerohedge chart shows GM stuffing the channel at a frightening rate

Zerohedge, the website that caters to short sellers, has been monitoring GM for symptoms of a relapse to the Bad Old. One of these symptoms is channel stuffing, defined by Investopedia as “a deceptive business practice used by a company to inflate its sales and earnings figures by deliberately sending retailers along its distribution channel more products than they are able to sell to the public.”

Zerohedge has a chart depicting an increasingly overflowing channel, and it looks bad. Let’s have a closer look.

Zerohedge sees “a near record 743K cars” sitting in the lots of GM dealers in February, – “the second highest ever.”

If you want to come to the defense of the General, you can simply say: “Second highest February, ever? Not true at all! In February 02, 988K were out there. In February 03, dealers drowned in 1.13 million GM vehicles. In February 04, there were 1.2 million – shall I go on?”

Point taken. Those were the days of 17 million units a year, and we all know what happened after the channel got stuffed.

Inventories go up for GM and its peers

Let’s put the matter in perspective by recreating the same chart for GM and its peers. Dealer inventories sure are rising. They rise for all makes, some rise more than others. A simple reason for dealer inventories to rise is that sales are up.

A better, but still confusing picture

To get a grip on this (and on inventories), the industry uses a metric usually called “days to turn” (or “days of sale” etc.). It goes like this: “If business stays like last month, how many days will it take to move the inventory?” Days to turn should not go up as business increases. Sure, total inventory goes up. By selling inventory faster, days to turn should stay relatively even.

In the industry, a two month inventory, or around 60 days, is considered reasonable. As we can see from this chart, GM appears to be far removed from that 60 days ideal.

Days to turn also is a metric that must be used with care. Take GM’s December 1 inventory of 788K. Looking at the sales rate of November, it was determined that it would take 106 days to move. GM did put cash on the hood, year-end sales did their part. On January 1, there was an inventory of 717K. Now suddenly, it would take only 76 days to move that inventory? It would, if January sales pace would be the same as December. Of course it was not. So we land on 738K inventory at the beginning of February, which suddenly is said to take 95 days to turn. Confused?

We are not trying to predict inventory levels, we are trying to establish a trend. For that, we take a simple three month moving average of the days to turn to smooth out the confusing ups and downs.

GM accumulates more and more inventory, while Toyota’s remains relatively flat

This chart is less dramatic than that of Zerohedge, but it tells us a lot. We see that days to turn trend up for all Detroit makers. GM however remains the most profligate inventory oinker. On a three month averaged basis, GM has nearly three weeks more inventory out there than Ford. Of the Detroit3, Ford looks most disciplined, especially considering its high share of trucks. In Febuary, Ford’s three month average for trucks was 77 days, that of cars was 68 days – not a large difference.

I have added Toyota as a reference. With Toyota still importing some 30 percent of the cars it sells in the U.S., one would assume that Toyota’s inventories should be higher. They are not. Quite interestingly, all four of them had inventory levels slightly above 60 days in March 2011. After the Tsunami hit, Toyota’s inventories decreased, but they did not increase a lot in 2012. Lean inventories do not seem to be in favor in Detroit, with GM topping the obesity scale.

P.S.: Before the usual “GM needs to prepare for the truck shutdown” arguments come: In February, GM’s truck inventory stood at 94 days, that of cars stood at 95 days.

Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href=""> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href=""> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

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  • Grunt Grunt on Mar 03, 2013

    The inventory of 1500 crew cabs is a large contributing factor to the current days supply. It is the first model of Silverado to be transitioning to the new body style 2014. It is also the highest volume model in the Silverado lineup. I am the inventory manager of a Chevy dealership that sells about 60 to 70 new Chevrolets a month, the vast majority of which are trucks in that out of that number we may average 5 cars a month. We essentially ordered about 5 months worth of those in a 2 month cycle. When starting up a new product the ramp-up is slow so those will carry us through the lean start-up period. They have had big cash on the hood and will continue to do so til they are gone. We will be just fine though my availability of 1500 crew cab is currently about 150 days that number will plummet over the next several months as we sell down and wait on them to ramp-up production of the new one.

    • See 2 previous
    • Highdesertcat Highdesertcat on Mar 03, 2013

      @Grunt LOL! Bobby Jindal country. I actually enjoyed the meetings. If for nothing else but the socializing and talking to others, exchanging ideas and trying new approaches. My brothers competed in the brutal Houston and Dallas areas, and in three other states. Thought you might have been from the Waco and/or San Antonio area. Sorry.

  • Jkross22 Jkross22 on Mar 04, 2013

    As someone who thought the bailout was all bullshit, I'm at least glad to see GM making money*. *By making money, I mean wiping out debt and then trumpeting their tremendous turnaround and making boatloads of money. I'm sure most US households would be hunky dory if Uncle Sam came in, forgave all forms of consumer debt and allowed us to carry forward tax credits and bid us adieu. But I digress.

    • Doctor olds Doctor olds on Mar 04, 2013

      They'd probably let you carry forward some tax credits, too, if you were going to pick up much more in pension liability in exchange. In 2012, GM disposed of $29B of that liability, a small fraction of the total pension obligations the new company did take on in exchange for those credits. The tax credits are not a free lunch.

  • ToolGuy First picture: I realize that opinions vary on the height of modern trucks, but that entry door on the building is 80 inches tall and hits just below the headlights. Does anyone really believe this is reasonable?Second picture: I do not believe that is a good parking spot to be able to access the bed storage. More specifically, how do you plan to unload topsoil with the truck parked like that? Maybe you kids are taller than me.
  • ToolGuy The other day I attempted to check the engine oil in one of my old embarrassing vehicles and I guess the red shop towel I used wasn't genuine Snap-on (lots of counterfeits floating around) plus my driveway isn't completely level and long story short, the engine seized 3 minutes later.No more used cars for me, and nothing but dealer service from here on in (the journalists were right).
  • Doughboy Wow, Merc knocks it out of the park with their naming convention… again. /s
  • Doughboy I’ve seen car bras before, but never car beards. ZZ Top would be proud.
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.