Some friends of Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank, sold their home last month to visit every national park in a recreational vehicle, while another acquaintance bought a boat at a show.
Such anecdotal evidence helps make it “less surprising and more encouraging” that sales of RVs and pleasure craft are poised for another year of improvement, says Chicago-based Ablin, who helps manage $66 billion in assets. Americans are determined to “hold onto their leisure time,” so monitoring these purchases offers a “very important” consumer gauge.
With summer well under way, both industries appear to be heating up, suggesting confidence has improved. Sales of recreational vehicles are poised to approach a pre-recession peak this year, which bodes well for the still-recovering U.S. boat business.
Shipments of new towable campers and motorized RVs were “quite strong” in the first half of 2014, bucking some concerns about the resiliency of demand coming into the year, said Mac Bryan, a vice president at the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. This suggests the industry could achieve projected gains of 10 percent, with shipments less than 1,000 units off the 350,000 pre-recession peak, he said, citing an estimate from the Reston, Virginia, trade group.
“What’s unique about this growth spurt is that it follows four years of improved shipments,” Bryan said. Despite harsh winter weather that contributed to about six days of lost production, manufacturers were able to recover and meet pent-up demand, he said.
That’s good news for the largest publicly traded RV makers: Thor Industries Inc. and Winnebago Industries Inc. These companies’ stocks have fallen this year; shares of Winnebago, in Forest City, Iowa, are down 9 percent, while Elkhart, Indiana-based Thor is almost 1 percent lower.
Amid “remarkably strong trends,” 2014 is shaping up to be “a very good year,” said Richard Curtin, director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who has analyzed the industry for more than 30 years and provides projections for RVIA. This could continue into 2015, as he forecasts shipments will rise to more than 360,000, the most since 2006.
RV sales also are encouraging for the U.S. economy because they’re “very discretionary” and have a strong correlation with consumer confidence, Curtin said. An index of buying conditions for large household durables held at 141 in June and has averaged almost 132 since the recession that ended in June 2009, according to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer survey.
More broadly, sentiment measured by the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose to 37.6 for the week ended July 6, the highest in more than two months.
While sales of recreational vehicles and motor homes have almost recovered after demand plunged in the 18-month slump, the boat industry is projected to reach about 65 percent of its pre-recession level by year-end, according to Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association in Chicago. That isn’t entirely surprising because spending on watercraft historically has lagged behind RVs, he said.
Purchases of powerboats -- including yachts, pontoons and fishing vessels -- are up 6.9 percent so far this year and are “on pace to achieve or even exceed,” forecast growth of 5 percent to 7 percent, Dammrich said. Following a 2.2 percent gain in 2013, the industry has been buoyed in part by stronger-than-expected demand this spring, he added.
Such an improvement could surface when Brunswick Corp., the largest U.S. manufacturer, and MarineMax Inc., the leading retailer, report quarterly results later this month.
Like RVs, boat purchases are strongly correlated with consumer confidence, the housing market and general economic improvement, Dammrich said. U.S. boaters are “predominantly middle-class” -- 71 percent of owners have household income of less than $100,000 -- so buying a new boat is a significant expenditure for most Americans.
This reinforces other signs that people are “putting money where their minds are,” as the economic recovery, along with improving wages and household assets, benefits a wider swath of consumers, Ablin said. Purchases of financed, nonessential items -- which include RVs and boats -- have fared better than other categories of retail spending recently, according to his calculations.
“For someone to make a discretionary purchase and take on debt to do it, that takes a high degree of confidence and optimism about their financial future,” Ablin said. Although he doesn’t actively track the publicly traded companies in these industries, other investors probably are encouraged by this year’s trends.
Even so, manufacturers have had to appeal to more budget-conscious buyers since the recession ended. As a result, average prices of motorized RVs are lower today than in 2007, partly because companies have removed some features, Curtin said.
Similarly, a persistent theme in the past few years for marine makers has been the popularity of day boats, Dammrich said. These vessels -- including those used for skiing, fishing and wakeboarding -- typically don’t have cabins because they’re intended to be returned to dock at night, he said, adding that 95 percent of boats in use are fewer than 25 feet long.
In the absence of a “heroic recovery,” Lake Forest, Illinois-based Brunswick is focused on remaining the “low-cost manufacturer,” Chief Executive Officer Dustan McCoy said at a May 21 conference hosted by B. Riley & Co.
While Dammrich is optimistic that boating slowly will catch up with gains in the auto and RV industries, a glut of pre-owned watercraft could delay the rebound, he said, adding that used vessels now account for about 80 percent of sales, compared with a pre-recession average of 72 percent.
More than 161,000 new powerboats were sold in the three months ended Dec. 31, 2013, on a rolling 12-month basis -- the most-recent data available -- compared with an annual average of about 307,500 units in 2001-2007, NMMA figures show.
Still, there are signs of optimism. Brunswick’s boat segment -- which made up more than one-fourth of company revenue in 2013 -- will be profitable in 2014 for the first time in several years, McCoy said.
Likewise, Winnebago’s towable unit was profitable for the quarter ended May 31, and the company has “improved confidence” for this business while continuing to see “robust demand” for motorized vehicles, Chief Financial Officer Sarah Nielsen said on a June 26 conference call.
There’s also been some improvement in sales of more expensive motor-home models -- such as those retailing for more than $100,000, Curtin said.
As the fall approaches, NMMA may revise its forecast for 2014 powerboat sales, Dammrich said. He also confers with colleagues in the RV, fishing, snow skiing and snowmobiling industries to gauge how leisure demand is faring because boaters often “participate in multiple kinds of activities.”
Bryan of the RVIA agrees. “The drivers of demand for boats and RVs are very similar in many respects.”