General Motors Corp. has come up with a strategy that it hopes will allow it to move its swollen inventory of 1986 models off the lots while raising prices, according to some auto industry analysts.
Capitalizing on sharp price increases by Japanese manufacturers, GM is boosting its own 1986 prices an average 2.9 percent, effective April 14.
However, to make the boost less visible to consumers, and to heighten the contrast with its Japanese competitors, GM is expected to reintroduce low-rate incentive financing of the sort that brought buyers out in droves last year.
Company officials declined comment on what a 2.9 percent increase would mean in terms of dollar costs per car. But a similar hike by domestic auto makers last fall added an average $400 to new-car prices, according to Automotive News, a Detroit-based auto industry trade journal.
In addition, the company has announced that it is cutting back on previously scheduled production, knocking out 50,000 cars originally scheduled in the first quarter of this year.
"What GM is trying to do is get its system back in balance," said Charles J. Brady, an analyst for New York-based Sanford C. Bernstein Inc. "They certainly have excess supply right now."
The trick is to reduce inventory and increase profits, a difficult feat in an industry whose sales are running 17.2 percent beneath last year's levels.
But, thanks to their reaction to an unfavorable yen-dollar exchange rate, Japanese auto makers are giving GM the perfect cover to carry out its plan, according to Brady and David Healy, an analyst with Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. in New York.
Japanese auto makers have raised their prices an average 10.7 percent, or about $1,028 per car, over the last six months, according to Automotive News.
"Now, GM has the opportunity to come in and get its 2.9 percent, while its Japanese competitors are getting their bigger increases," said Brady. But GM is going to follow its price increases with discount finance-rate campaigns, which might look especially attractive to consumers in the face of overall higher prices, according to Brady and Healy.
"In this life, there are three things that are inevitable: death, taxes and GM's next sales-incentive campaign," Healy said.
"GM is getting like the steel industry used to be. Whenever sales volume gets bad, raise your prices and discount from the higher base.
"That doesn't seem to fit the current situation with car sales being soft. But they can get away with it because of lower gasoline prices, the lower dollar, and because they will be pricing off the imports," Healy said.
"It is a little thought-provoking," said Wendy Beale, an analyst with Smith Barney, Harris Upham Inc. in New York. "Why raise prices in a competitive environment, particularly when it seems that the Japanese are about to lose sales because their prices have risen so high?"
Said Brady: "It's a psychological ploy. . . . But I think it will succeed" in terms of "smoothing out" GM's production and inventory problems.
The domestic auto industry observes an extended Easter holiday; and because of that, GM officials were out yesterday and were unavailable for comment.
GM, which had launched an aggressive production drive to increase its market share, plans to cancel 90,000 units in the second quarter, according to a report yesterday by Ward's Automotive Reports, a Detroit-based auto industry newsletter
GM now has enough inventory to meet consumer demand for 80 days. A 60-to-65-day supply is considered normal in the domestic auto industry.