Walter Olson brings back the “Cash For Clunkers is why used cars have become so expensive” argument:
Guess whatís the newest trouble to hit the car business? As news outlets around the country are reporting, the price of used cars has lately soared to a modern-day record, with some cars commanding more used than they sold for when new. News accounts commonly finger the Japanese earthquake and high gas prices as reasons, but there are some problems fitting either reason to the case. While the earthquake affected the supply of new cars, itís the previously driven kind that has scored the more impressive price jump. And while the rise in gas prices would explain a relative shift in buyer demand from SUVs and trucks toward smaller vehicles ó which has indeed happened ó the strength of the used-vehicle market lately has been such that even the thirstier vehicles have advanced in price, $4 gas or no.
No doubt there are multiple reasons for the price spike, including the severe general slump in new-auto sales in recent years, which has reduced the volume of newer cars coming onto the resale market. But ó as Washington scrambles to take undeserved credit for whatever passes for normalization in the auto business these days ó itís worth remembering that an artificial scarcity of used cars isnít just bad for the poor as a group: itís bad in particular for the upwardly mobile poor, since in most of the country landing a job means needing to line up transportation to get to that job. When it suddenly costs $6,000 instead of $3,000 to get wheels, the move from unemployment to a paying job faces a new and discouraging barrier.
At least he points out that there are “multiple reasons,” which is something that a lot of C4C critics have glided over in the past. Even so, he acts like C4C is the driving factor when there is comparatively little reason to believe it’s more than just a contributor. I wrote about C4C here and here. My basic view is that Cash For Clunkers was an idiotic proposal, a poor way to go about reducing emissions and destroying a lot of capital along the way, but that it’s hard to blame all - or most - of the increased cost of used cars on the law. I previously pointed out that some of the cars where the price increase is the highest, late-model used cars for instance, were not the ones taken off the road. While it’s possible that there is a cascading effect (people can’t buy a targeted, fuel-inefficient vehicle and instead buys an ineligible care taking that one off the road) you would still see the biggest impact on the cars that were targeted and more impact on cars from that period and not more recent cars. Instead, it’s the other way around, suggesting that the biggest reduction in used car availability (where increased demand is meeting decreased supply) is a result of people buying late-model used rather than new vehicles and - more likely - holding on to the car that they have.
Olson cites this article, among others:
Bill Visnic, analyst and senior editor at Edmunds.com, said the auto industry went from selling 16.5 million new cars annually before the recession, down to 10.5 million in the depths of the crisis. He said the average age of a used vehicle on the road today is in excess of ten years old, as well, meaning that overall more consumers are keeping their older cars.
“About five million people or so dropped out of the market,” Visnic said. “A vast number of those people would have been trading in a used car when they bought a new one. That’s a big whammy when the replacement rate has been lagging so much.”
Consumers looking to buy used cars will find that prices are up markedly, Visnic said. The Wall Street Journal reports that prices for used cars are up 5% this year at wholesale auto house Manheim. He said the Car Allowance Rebate System, which was introduced in 2009, also set off the price hike in the used market. The government program dubbed “Cash for Clunkers” offers economic incentives to U.S. consumers for turning in their used cars for a newer, more fuel-efficient vehicle. In turn, instead of ending up on the used car lots across the country, those vehicles went to junkyard graves.
So there has been a reduction of 6 million car sales per annum. Cash for Clunkers may be responsible for - at maximum - 1/7th of that. That assumes that everyone who totaled their car in 2009 would have sold it in 2010. Given that a frequent (and valid!) criticism of C4C is that it didn’t even increase the sale of new cars because it merely time-shifted purchasing (they bought in 2009 what they might have waited a couple years to get rid of), it seems likely that a lot of them would still have the car.
Be that as it may, it is likely that it is contributing to the problem to at least some extent. The “lost capital” that I lament is going to have some effect. And it is another reason to dislike this bit of free pudding policymaking. But there are a lot of other factors at work (an economy that went to hell, primarily) that swamp the effects of the policy.