Las Vegas — There's reason for optimism — and saying so isn't mere “happy talk,” George Borst, CEO of Toyota Financial Services, says, looking past the current economic woes.

The auto industry, with a history of profitable ups and painful downs, currently is in the bottom of a cycle, “where it's always the driest,” he says. “We've been there before. The market has recovered and will do so again.”

But not as quickly as he first thought. Borst says that six months ago he figured the worst would be over by now. He currently pegs the recovery's estimated time of arrival at 12 to 15 months, with the next six months being tough.

“We're going through a lot of change, but not a restructuring,” he says at the F&I Management and Technology's annual conference here.

“However if you think things will get better and that you don't have to change, the market will punish you,” he says. “If the rate of change is greater externally than internally for a company, be prepared for the end.”

Many firms have reduced operating costs to cope with the down period. That's an important step, Borst says. “Focus and strengthen what you do well. Those who've made changes will reap rewards. A bad market exposes weakness and strategic-planning mistakes.”

Several industry forecasts estimate 2008 light-vehicle sales will be 2 million less than 2007. The silver lining is that creates a pent-up demand, Borst says.

“The market should be 16.4 million in a strong year, and it will be 14 million-something this year,” he says. “Where did those people go? They didn't disappear. They'll be back.”

With good reason, he says. “More manufacturers are coming to market with vehicles more in tune with what customers want. It's a product-driven business. Demand just doesn't go away. We have to give them reason to buy new product.”

For now though, it's been tough selling for franchised dealers. September light-vehicle deliveries were 932,501 units compared with 1.3 million for the same month last year, a 23.5% drop, according to Ward's data.

But, long term, U.S. demographic forecasts are encouraging, Borst says. The nation's diverse population is expanding and 4 million people a year are coming of driving age. “By 2020, the U.S. will add 32 million people,” he says. “That's like annexing Canada.”

He predicts greater loan funding will return, credit losses will lessen, the used-car market will rebound, and demand for fullsize pickup trucks and SUVs will bounce back somewhat.

“There's been an overreaction to high fuel prices,” Borst says.

For now, though, the nation's credit woes have hurt dealers and their customers.

“America's financial liquidity crisis, created by mortgage lending, is constraining the availability of auto credit, which is the lifeblood of both dealerships at the wholesale level and car buyers at the retail level,” says Annette Sykora, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

NADA is meeting with bank and financial-services representatives to pitch the soundness of the existing auto-finance model and urge them to make money available for auto loans.

With fewer lenders and tighter credit, “it is harder to set up a vehicle loan,” Borst says.

He adds: “Some people think it's only a subprime problem, but that's last year's news. It has spilled onto prime. It's hit all kinds of consumers.

“A lot of households are facing real stretches,” he says. “You'll find a major deterioration of FICO (Fair and Isaacson Co.) credit scores for people who now have car loans that were obtained at prime rates.”

Borst offers “one comment” on the debacle that hit Wall Street. “When the whole thing is over, they'll say it was a failure of risk management. It doesn't take a deep-dive analysis.”