Fear of job loss, uncertainty stalls car buyers — so Ford came up with an idea

Karl Brauer went to work in mid-June doing a job he loved, and he ended the day with news it had come to an end.

“I was let go the day after my seventh anniversary,” said Brauer, 50, a longtime industry authority as executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader.  “I’ve got a wife and we’re a single-income family with two kids, 21 and 19, with one on the autism spectrum and both in college.”

He had no warning he was going to lose his job. A few weeks before, he had been out new car shopping, but held off.

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“There are plenty of people out there who just have no idea what is going to happen,” Brauer said. “They may feel completely confident in their job, but they’ve got friends or relatives who felt confident in their job two weeks ago and now they’re unemployed. It’s not really a question of responsibility as much a question of the unknown, of variability.”

It’s stories like Brauer’s that have a lot of consumers hesitant to make major purchases, like buying a car, right now.

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So Ford Motor Co. is launching a special program to offset this consumer anxiety.

The company is allowing customers who buy new or used cars through Ford Credit to return that vehicle within a year if payments can’t be made because of job loss. The special “Ford Promise” program announced publicly Monday runs through September 30.

It applies specifically to 2019, 2020 and 2021 purchased or leased new, used and certified pre-owned vehicles. Commercial use contracts do not qualify.

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Karl Brauer, who recently lost his job as executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book, is seen here on Dec. 21, 2019 with his daughter Katherine in New York City.

‘Not comfortable’

This latest initiative is a response to economic fear seen by car dealers.

“I definitely know there are customers who are uncertain about making a large financial decision at this time,” said Brian Godfrey, president of Pat Milliken Ford in Redford, Michigan. “We’ve seen customers who have put off a purchase or a decision on renewing their lease because of the uncertainty.”

This new program, he said, is designed to give customers a little extra confidence.

Consumer data collected by Ford actually documents the concern.

“We’ve been doing a lot of different research since the pandemic started,” said Matt Atkenson, U.S. retail communications manager at Ford. “We’ve found in the data that there’s a growing population of customers saying, with everything going on, they’re just not comfortable pulling the trigger. Not just automotive, but major purchases.”

Matt Atkenson, U.S. retail communications manager at Ford, has studied data that reflects consumer anxiety associated with the uncertain economy. He is pictured here with his wife Stacy on April 27, 2019, in New York.

Fear of job loss is key, he said. As economic forecasters continue discussing the crisis and more companies announce bankruptcy – including J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney, Pier 1 Imports, Hertz, Gold’s Gym and Tuesday Morning – no one knows what to expect. 

Ford pointed to Cox Automotive data that an estimated 32% of potential customers are delaying auto purchases, citing market uncertainty and fear of unemployment.

“To qualify for this debt waiver,” Atkenson said, “you have to have involuntary job loss. If someone is eligible for state unemployment, that will qualify them to receive this. It begins 30 days after a vehicle purchase.”

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Hyundai-Kia pioneered this kind of program to allay customer anxiety during the Great Recession.

In recent months, automakers including Ford have allowed customers to delay making car payments under certain circumstances related to COVID-19, but this is the first time an automaker is guaranteeing you can return your new vehicle.

Ford Credit will buy back the vehicle at its average trade-in value. If the difference between the vehicle value and the amount owed is greater than $15,000, the program limit, then the customer is responsible for that difference, Ford said. The customer would also be responsible for any late or deferred payments and vehicle damage.

‘Getting worse’

“The uncertainty is off the charts right now,” said Charles Ballard, a professor of economics at Michigan State University.

“This is an unprecedented situation. Think about ‘normal’ times. Like the recession: We thought that was a big problem back in the day. But then all we had to forecast was basically how the financial market meltdown – how that was going to evolve. All we had to worry about was the economic behavior of banks, businesses and households. That was simple compared to the COVID-19 recession,” he said. “Now we have to figure out banks, businesses and households in the midst of huge uncertainty compounded by the fact that we don’t know how the virus is going to go. It appears to be getting worse.”

Ballard praised the innovative Ford program as a “clever idea” that creates a workaround to uncertainty.

“When people are worried, they do not make big-ticket purchases. Or when people are scared,” he said. 

Cuts and more cuts

Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds.com, said the impact of economic uncertainty cannot be overstated.

“There have just been so many job cuts throughout the economy, and I don’t think we’re necessarily out of the woods yet from a jobs standpoint,” she said. “Anyone buying a car now, running through their mind is, ‘Is my job secure? Am I going to be able to pay for this?'”

Brauer, who lives in Lake Forest, California, said he was talking to a Ford dealer about purchasing a Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R just weeks before getting the bad news on June 18.

He was holding off because of uncertainty.

And, for now, his wife isn’t panicking. 

“I pride myself on my powers of frugality,” said Stacie Brauer, 56. “Karl has been between jobs before, and last time I put a Post-it note up in the kitchen saying, ‘Spiritually grounded in a life of simplicity.’ I’ve re-created that Post-it note, with the words ‘once again’ added.”

No one anywhere is truly safe from job elimination these days, Karl Brauer said.

“There’s a bunch of people still at Cox Automotive who just saw me get laid off and they’re thinking, ‘If it can happen to Karl, who else is next?’ Should I buy a new car?'” he said. “Then you hear Ford say if you buy that you can return it, and that just took a lot of fear out of buying a car.”

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard at 313-222-6512 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ford buy-back program tackles consumer fear over unpredictable economy