KAR Auction Services is Not in Secular Decline $KAR

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KAR auction services, the company that runs used car auctions, looks on sale right now.

KAR has been under pressure from COVID impacts to the business, but unlike other COVID-impacted names (where investors are seeing through the clouds), the stock is still down meaningfully.

KAR reported earnings Q4’20 earnings and guidance last week (on Feb-16) and the stock is down about 24% in the past week.

KAR Auction Services Stock

It seems to me investors do not realize KAR Auction Services current pressures are cyclical, not secular. Today, we’re able to buy a really good business at ~10% FCF yield on depressed earnings.

KAR Auction Services FCF Yield


Why is the stock getting hammered?

For one, disappointing guidance. The company expects EBITDA of at least $475MM in 2021 as they continue to recover from COVID.

Consensus was expecting $566MM – ouch.

Kicking the Can? The other issue with guidance is it is 2H’21 weighted.

In my experience, this can be a “kick-the-can” move for management. In other words, they know 2021 EBITDA has the chance of being lower, but they’ll wait for Q2 earnings to break that news or maybe things will turn around.

Fingers crossed. This isn’t always true, but just my experience.

Management left wiggle room – they did say at least $475MM. They also explicitly said the guide is conservative. That’s not something I’m banking on. I also don’t really care about 2021 earnings in isolation. That’s way too short-term focused in a year that will continue to be impacted by COVID, as noted further below.


Why the weak guide?

Car values are high right now. During the height of COVID, the manufacturers pulled back in the face of a new, deep recession. Plus, they had to reset manufacturing processes during a global pandemic. Lo and behold – demand for cars held in. This is known as the bull whip effect.

Supply < Demand = really high used car prices.

Manheim Used Car Price Index

Normally, this would benefit KAR Auction Services, because their auctions would be earnings higher auction fees on cars. But there is clearly lower volume going through the lanes.

Not just from the shortage of cars, but also when residual values are high, you will see less lease returns as the customer decides it’s a good deal to buy out the lease at the value that is better than current market. There has also been less repossessions, another volume headwind.


What is the Street Missing?

Number one, the stock looks cheap when you bridge using the current FCF guide.

Yes, there is risk the guidance, but I don’t actually think KAR’s go forward earnings potential is limited by this year’s factors. The things I mentioned all seem cyclical.

Second, they are caught up on secular changes versus cyclical.

KAR’s earnings are being hit by cyclical issues that I think will abate.

Every investor is trying to see how COVID will change the world and how technology will reshape it. A lot of investors are saying KAR’s barriers to entry have been lowered now that auctions are online. I do not think that is true.


I read one note expressing concern that a survey revealed a lot of dealers are looking to buy and sell cars via online auctions this year. Given KAR Auction Services has a strong physical presence, this caused some concern. Pardon my French, but my response to that is – No Sh*t, Sherlock.

We’re in a pandemic. Of course dealers are looking to buy and sell online. They have to. And this was definitely the case during 2020.

If you read my About Me page, I used to have a dealer’s license. I know a thing or two about buying used cars and I used to go to Adesa all the time. It truly is a great business, which I’ll go into some brief detail later.

But anecdotally, I can tell you buying cars online is not easy. You’re buying a car with limited info, no ability to drive the car to see how it feels, how it sounds, check the oil, etc. The cars I bought online (as opposed to the seeing it in person online) were some of the worst purchases I ever made and I pretty much vowed to never do it again because it was a waste of time.

“But Dilly D”, you’re asking, “can’t this be improved?”

Of course, this could be improved with technology and better disclosure. You need to realize, though, that these online platforms are turning over thousands of cars. And as much as cars may seem like a commodity, used cars really aren’t.

Think about all the options a car has and then fold in a good versus bad service record. The band of prices could easily be +/- 10%, which is thousands of dollars we’re talking about.

But Adesa is also one of the biggest players. And they’ve had an online presence for at least 15 years (just speaking from my memory). They, along with Manheim (a private competitor), do a decent job at it. Adesa also has invested heavily in inspection services to make it better and faster process, as well as other services.

So I’m not too concerned about any upstarts or anything like that. Upstarts don’t have access to the same supply the big players have. And the dealers, like I was, like Adesa and Manheim because they get the supply plus the best prices because they are essentially getting a bulk discount. And you know competition is somewhat limited as a dealer because you have to have a license to access the auction.


This leads me to why Adesa is a great business.

As I was just leading into, Adesa is a great business because it connects sellers with buyers and just takes a fee off the top. The fee goes up or down based on the sale price, but has large enough bands that if used car prices fall, let’s say, 10%, it doesn’t hurt their earnings that much.

Sellers want access to a large supply of buyers who are committed to buy their product (i.e. they are selling to dealers who need the supply). This way, they can offload slow inventory or lease vehicles quickly and achieve good prices for them. This frees up working capital to re-deploy in their business.

Buyers want access to a large swath of cars at good prices that they can sell at a profit. For me, having a wide array of cars to pick from helped me find “hidden gems” that I could quickly turn.


The same note I mentioned above (which was absurd) highlighted online competition from Copart, which has been a “competitor” for forever and is really more a competitor of IAA, the insurance-loss auction spin from KAR. Copart is no doubt a great business, but I think it’s comparing two different markets.

If you compare IAA to Copart, their results during 2020 were much closer to each other than comparing it to KAR Auction Services – just different markets. Copart outperformed KAR and IAA sales were actually up, though they were able to benefit from improved pricing despite volumes being down. Although Copart discusses their “platform” a decent amount, but personally, I’d say it’s a different market.


Here’s another anecdote to explain why they are different markets: I remember being at an auction and a totally smashed Cadillac Escalade came through. The front was actually fine, but the back looked like it was caved in by an 18-wheeler.

I laughed to myself thinking, “I guess someone will try to part this thing” and lo and behold, the bids started to come in at really high levels. I want to say the car sold for over $20,000, despite being crumpled. I was in person, but the bidder was online and you could see the location. The bidder was in Saudi Arabia. That’s when I learned many of these salvaged cars are worth a lot internationally. Buyers can part them out, but some countries also have less strict rules on piecing cars together.

Anyway, as the dollar becomes weaker, this helps a Copart who sells a lot of inventory to these buyers:

Roughly 35% of Copart’s inventory is purchased by foreign buyers:


Back to that absurd sell-side note one more time: They also highlighted online competition from Carvana. Carvana uses KAR to buy and sell wholesale inventory. They do not provide nearly enough volume as a separate wholesale auction to be attractive. It really doesn’t make sense at all.

CarMax and Carvana really want to sell retail… yes, they get trade-ins they want to sell, but they want good prices on those and want to turn them quickly. Carmax has its own auction because its huge, but it still uses KAR  to fill inventory. Carmax can use their auction to sell inventory they don’t want anymore quickly.

Adesa provides that for everyone. It’s not really different than the marketplaces investors love today, they just have primarily relied on a physical presence. As stated, I think this will continue to be an industry that needs the physical presence.

KAR Auction Services ROIC

4 thoughts on “KAR Auction Services is Not in Secular Decline $KAR”

  1. I believe the stock is cheap based on the numbers and I think the auto auction business is a great business like you mentioned. I am currently a shareholder.

    I am in the car business myself. I primarily wholesale and also buy for a large dealer group. Auction vehicle volume has been abnormally low for most of the past year. When customers return their leased vehicles, a high percentage of them are currently being purchased by the grounding dealer directly from the leasing company. This is abnormal and I believe is temporary. Usually only a low percentage are purchased by the grounding dealer. If the grounding dealer does not purchase the lease return, the vehicle then enters the pipeline for the auction.

    My biggest concern with KAR is management. They seem to be set on never running an actual vehicle thru the physical auction lane again. I understand being able to be online only with the virus and the high demand from dealers currently. But what do you think they will do when the market demand softens and the leasing companies are unable to obtain the prices they want? The auctioneer has a real hard time running up online bidders without being able to use a phantom inlane bidder.

    I have two auctions within 15 miles. One is an independent and the other is Manheim. The independent was back running the way it was before the virus in June of last year. Vehicles are running thru the lane and no masks are required. Manheim was online only until a few months ago. They finally started to have vehicles running thru the lane, but required masks. As a seller, it has been better to run at the independent than Manheim for the last year. Which is definitely not normal. Generally, cars sell for more at Manheim than this independent. So, do you think Adesa trying to stick to online only will be a mistake as well?

    Also, what you think of the convertible preferred stock they issued last May and the purchase of BackLotCars.

    Thank you for the website and I appreciate your time.

    1. Awags,

      Thanks for the comment and I appreciate your perspective here as well.

      To your questions, they tie in together for me. Number one, I agree mgmt is focused on online auctions to a negative degree. Why? Investors keep asking about it. They think it’s the “inevitable future” which i just think differently or have a different perspective.

      So the convert issuance and the backlot buy was also negative for me. First off, the convert is highly dilutive (about 20-25% of shares) and they had cash on hand. They always carry a lot of excess cash – if not for this purpose, then what else? I understand it was freaky and volumes blew up, but c’mon. Mgmt blinked and took a bad deal. They should’ve used some cash on hand and just issued stock for the same outcome.

      But anyway, that’s included in my price target. We have to take all this and look forward. I think if mgmt doesn’t get the stock up… they’ll find the door one way or another.

      1. They just announced a new CEO. Hopefully a move in the right direction.

        I would like to own the preferred shares, assuming the price is reasonable. Hopefully they will be traded on the secondary market. Convert at $17.75 with a 7% coupon. I think the company is undervalued at $17.75.

      2. Good timing!
        And yeah, wish the pref traded but I doubt it will. It’s controlled by Apax and Periphas.
        Stock is cheap – while a pref has downside protection, might as well own the stock!

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