Bloomberg News

Auto Sales Stall as Unemployment Puts Peak Out of Reach: Cars

August 01, 2011

Aug. 1 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. auto sales have stalled, casting doubt on a rebound this year as persistent unemployment and tighter lending deter buyers.

Light-vehicle deliveries in July, to be released tomorrow, may have run at an 11.8 million seasonally adjusted annual rate, the average estimate of 12 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. That would trail the 12.5 million rate in the first half.

The auto industry may lose 1.5 million in projected sales in 2011, according to consultant AlixPartners LLP. The economy isn’t picking up as fast as anticipated, and the drag may continue beyond this year, AlixPartners said. That may put a return to average annual sales of 16.8 million vehicles from 2000 to 2007 out of reach. Unemployment reached the highest level this year in June.

“This curve of unemployment looks like it’s got a lot of legs,” Mark Wakefield, an AlixPartners director in Southfield, Michigan, said in a telephone interview. “This is one of the first recent cycles where demand is not going to go back above its prior peak, because there are just so many structural things that are different this time around.”

Toyota Motor Corp. deliveries will drop from a year earlier through at least August, said Bob Carter, group vice president for U.S. sales, citing weak consumer confidence.

“That’s the most important thing for us, and right now the consumer doesn’t seem to be that confident about jobs and the overall economy,” Carter said in a July 27 interview in Cle Elum, Washington.

Ford’s Forecast

Ford Motor Co. is sticking with a full-year industrywide forecast of U.S. sales at 13 million to 13.5 million vehicles. “We probably feel closer to the bottom end of that,” Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth told reporters on July 26 when the company released second-quarter results. The forecast includes medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

Employers added 18,000 jobs in June, the smallest gain in nine months, as the U.S. unemployment rate rose to 9.2 percent, the Labor Department said. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment fell in July to 63.7, the weakest since March 2009, three months before the recession ended.

Analysts are projecting a sales rate for July below the 12.1 million averaged in the second quarter. The pace slowed from 13.1 million in the three months earlier after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan disrupted production and led to shortages of parts and finished vehicles.

J.D. Power & Associates and Citigroup Inc. cut their estimates for the industry sales rate from earlier in July, citing a slowdown in deliveries late in the month.

‘Digging Out’

Toyota, which said May and June would mark the low point of its inventory following the Japan tsunami, may report a 25 percent decline in deliveries, the average estimate of three analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

“Our market share will begin recovering this month, but it will be September or maybe October before we’re really growing again,” Carter said. “We were in too deep a hole, and we’re still digging out.”

Sales may decline 23 percent at Honda Motor Co., and Nissan Motor Co. deliveries may be little changed from a year earlier, according to the average of three analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

“July sales results are unlikely to settle the debate whether there is deterioration in underlying demand, due to the persistent lack of vehicle availability at Toyota and Honda,” Brian Johnson, an analyst at New York-based Barclays Capital, said in a July 25 research note.

Inventories Fall

Honda at the start of July had 60 percent lower inventories of Accord sedans and Civic compacts from a year earlier, while Toyota had 50 percent fewer Camry sedans and Corolla compacts, Johnson wrote.

Toyota, based in Toyota City, Japan, has said most of its production in Japan and North America will recover by September. Honda, based in Tokyo, has said North American output will return to 100 percent in August for all models except Civic small cars, the company’s No. 2 selling U.S. model.

Nissan, which reported net income of 85 billion yen ($1.09 billion) in the first quarter ended June 30 that beat analysts’ estimates, increased global production in May and June after a decline in April, the Yokohama-based company said.

General Motors Co. and Ford, which said Japan-related parts shortages caused immaterial production losses, won only limited market share in part because of tight supply of cars such as Ford’s Focus and Fiesta, and GM’s Chevrolet Cruze.

‘What-ifs’

“There is a lot of ‘what-ifs,’” Ford’s Booth told reporters on the company’s July 26 second-quarter earnings call. “We honestly couldn’t follow up the increased demand for small cars during the second quarter because we are flat out on Fiesta, and we are flat out on Focus.”

Ford, which reported a $2.4 billion profit, may say deliveries rose 7.6 percent, the average estimate of six analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Vehicle sales for GM, which reports second-quarter earnings on Aug. 4, may increase 7 percent, the average of six estimates.

GM rose 39 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $28.07 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Ford advanced 14 cents to $12.35.

Chrysler Group LLC, the automaker majority owned by Fiat SpA, may say sales increased 15 percent, the average of four estimates. Profit was $181 million in the second quarter after excluding losses from paying back government loans early, Auburn Hills, Michigan-based Chrysler said July 26.

Inventory Rises

Industrywide vehicle inventory climbed to 54 days’ supply at the beginning of July, from 49 days in June, according to J.D. Power. Car inventory started the month at a 43-day supply, with models such as Toyota’s Prius, Ford’s Focus and Honda’s Civic below 25 days, J.D. Power said.

Trucks were at 67 days’ supply, Westlake Village, California-based J.D. Power said in a statement. GM ended June with 122 days’ supply of Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups.

Annual pickup sales, which AlixPartners says are about 90 percent correlated to single-family housing starts, may not exceed 2 million this cycle after totaling more than 3 million each year from 1999 to 2004, Wakefield said.

“We think there were about a third of those previous buyers that were the ‘urban cowboy’ type, that have pretty much left that market and probably aren’t going to return to buying pickups,” he said.

Home Construction

Construction on single-family homes started at a 453,000 rate in June, less than one-fourth the peak monthly pace in 2006, Commerce Department data show.

Light-vehicle sales climbed to 11.6 million in 2010 from a 27-year low of 10.4 million in 2009.

The U.S. seasonally adjusted annualized rate, or SAAR, recovered from about 10 million in 2009 to 13 million earlier this year in an upswing that was “rapid and unsurprisingly unaccompanied by major labor market improvement,” Himanshu Patel, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote in a July 25 research note.

“It would be quite uncharacteristic for the next 3 million units (or even the next 1-2 million) to occur” without at least a 2 percentage point reduction in the unemployment rate and turnaround in housing, said Patel, who is based in New York.

Automakers probably boosted incentive spending by a small margin during the month, said Jesse Toprak, vice president of TrueCar.com, which tracks pricing data. The increases were “selective” and mainly offered for buyers of trucks and sport- utility vehicles, as small-car prices have climbed because of limited supplies, he said.

Truck Inventory

“We’re probably not going to see significant reduction in truck inventory until the fourth quarter,” said Toprak, who is based in Santa Monica, California.

Analysts said estimating the July sales rate was more difficult than other months because the Bureau of Economic Analysis publishes its seasonal adjustments that apply from July through the next 12 months later this week. The revised adjustments are based on sales during the past three years, said Everette Johnson, a BEA economist in Washington.

The following table shows estimates for car and light-truck sales in the U.S. Estimates for companies are a percentage change from July 2010, unadjusted for the difference in selling days. Forecasts for the seasonally adjusted annual rate, or SAAR, are in millions of vehicles.

July had 26 selling days, one fewer than a year earlier.

--With assistance from Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles. Editors: Bill Koenig, John Lear

To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Trudell in Southfield, Michigan at ctrudell1@bloomberg.net; Joshua Armstrong in Southfield, Michigan at jarmstrong39@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net


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