As is tradition, here is my quarterly analysis of the U.S. car rental market through the lens of last week’s quarterly reports and conference calls from the three major public companies, Hertz, Avis Budget Group and Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group.

Just to be clear, this analysis only looks at the public companies. As we all know, car rental’s biggest player in North America, Enterprise Holdings, is private. It must be nice not having to play “show and tell” every quarter.

Car rental rates will rise as the used car market softens.
While the three public companies continue to report profitability, revenue per day is still underwater. Volume and rental days are strong, especially on the leisure side, but rates are still depressed. All three companies tightened utilization, which boosted leisure rates to an extent. But in terms of corporate pricing, the needle hasn’t moved in the past few quarters, as the market remains cutthroat for that corporate dollar.

But understand that lower rates right now are in large part a function of the strong used car market: when you’re scoring big on the back end, you can afford to play on rates. When the used car market glides back down to earth, as it has been and will continue to in 2013, fleet costs will go up – and with it rates. It is an intricate

Europe is manageable.
Europe isn’t pretty right now. Tough pricing and soft used car demand have weakened residuals and driven down revenue per day. Nonetheless, Europe was still profitable in this quarter for Hertz and Avis Budget. (Dollar Thrifty’s European exposure is relatively insignificant.)

Remember, rental companies can downsize fairly easily, as we saw during our Recession. (Try that with a hotel room or an airline seat.) And where you might think Avis picked a fine time to buy Avis Europe, the company was able to grow volume and earnings through new corporate contracts that leverage its newfound multinational scope, and through its Budget penetration initiative.

Avis thinks Budget can take market share away from the vast population of independents in Europe, which comprise 35% of the market, according to Avis. The company thinks these independents will have a hard time financing fleet. That might happen, but I’ve met many of the independent operators on the continent and I would not count out their local business savvy.

Nonetheless, expect Budget’s share to grow.

It’s tough to know when Europe will start to cycle out of this, but if turns worse, rental companies will hunker down until the storm blows over.

The traditional auto auction is dead – long live the auction.
The largest remarketing channel is still the brick-and-mortar auction, but “direct to consumer” is the new buzz phrase in remarketing. (Well, the concept isn’t new but it’s gaining traction.) Hertz instituted its Rent2Buy program two years ago and Avis just signed a deal with AutoNation, where consumers can choose a vehicle online, test drive it, and complete the deal through AutoNation Direct.

In this second quarter, 13% of Hertz’s vehicles were sold direct to consumer. Though only about a 6% increase year over year, Hertz says it would like its direct-to-consumer programs at 50% of total sales in two years.

Avis sold about 40% of its risk vehicles through channels other than auction in the second quarter. While Avis admits the direct-to-consumer channel is “fairly young,” the company sees a big opportunity to improve fleet costs by migrating from wholesale and retail sales.

The traditional auction is far from dead – but in a business world where logistics is everything, getting the used car buyer into a rental car faster than ever is a simple necessity.

The neighborhood market must be starting to get crowded.
Avis now has close to 550 co-branded local market stores and it grew off-airport rental volumes 6% in the quarter. From four years ago until now, Avis Budget Group has grown off-airport revenue from next to nothing four years ago to $750 million.

Hertz opened 103 net new local market stores in the second quarter, on top of 69 in the first quarter, on top of 247 net new local market stores in 2011. (I’ve been keeping track.) I heard they were opening up new Hertz locations in the bathrooms of Hertz locations – but that’s just a rumor.

How much longer can the wagons push out onto the wild plains of the local market, which is still owned by Enterprise? Forever, it seems, or as long as the perception of opportunity remains for investors.

The merger merry-go-round continues.
Last quarter, a breakthrough: Hertz reported it had “made substantial progress” toward obtaining antitrust clearance to move forward with a Dollar Thrifty acquisition; moreover, Hertz had “agreed on the material terms of the divestiture of our Advantage business with a potential buyer.” Word on the Street was that a deal would come fairly quickly, though here we are almost three months later, and no deal.  

Hertz rendered a neutral tone on its call, saying it “remains engaged with the FTC to secure antitrust clearance to potentially acquire Dollar Thrifty, which requires, among other things, the divestiture of our Advantage business.”

On Dollar Thrifty’s call, CEO Scott Thompson expressed unusual candor – and exasperation. Aside from joking about his hair loss over the issue, he said the company has lost employees and has been negatively impacted when negotiating with strategic partners. He said no offer has been extended, and called for an end to this three-year-long saga.

So what is the snag now? Could the vetting process and wrangling with the FTC still be continuing? Could the deal with the divestiture of Advantage have turned sour? We don’t know. Both companies’ stock prices have trended down in the last three months. The lack of a deal is to no one’s advantage… so to speak.

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Originally posted on Business Fleet

Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Digital Editor of Automotive Fleet, Fleet Forward, Auto Rental News

As editor of Automotive Fleet (digital), Auto Rental News, Fleet Forward, and Business Fleet, Chris Brown covers all aspects of fleets, transportation, and mobility.