January 3, 2009 at 1:00 am

Big drop expected for Dec. car sales

Release of monthly, year-end numbers on Monday will show a dramatic fall, experts say.

Monday will bring more bad news from automakers when they report December and full-year sales, both of which are expected to be down dramatically over last year's totals.

The industry as a whole sold about 13.2 million cars and trucks in 2008 in the United States, down from 16.5 million units in 2007, according to Ford Motor Co. That is the lowest sales tally since 1992. It represents the biggest year-over-year decline since the first oil crisis in 1974. And there is little prospect for improvement anytime soon.

"The sales rate has declined like a lead balloon throughout the year," said George Pipas, head of sales forecasting for Ford. "When December comes in, every segment is going to be down."

Wall Street is bracing for the impact of Monday's numbers.

"Industry sales of light vehicles appear to have weakened further in December amid continued deterioration in consumer confidence," said analyst Brian Johnson of Barclays Capital, who estimates December sales could be less than 9.6 million vehicles on a seasonally adjusted annual rate.

That would be worse than the 10.2-million-unit selling rate for November and the lowest monthly rate in more than 26 years.

"This sequential deterioration in sales is particularly concerning because December should typically have benefited from the generous year-end incentives offered by several manufacturers," he said. "This reinforces the likelihood that industry sales will remain at or below the current depressed rates at least for the next few months."

Analyst Himanshu Patel of JPMorgan is projecting a 9.9 million vehicle selling rate for the month.

"We now expect 2009 U.S. (sales) to be 11 million units, down 16 percent year-over-year, expect European volumes to weaken further ... and take a significantly more cautious view on Latin America, where volume declines have accelerated in the last one month," he said. "That said, we think recent Treasury actions will help ease credit and consumer concerns, potentially helping U.S. car sales starting as early as January."

Ford sees a silver lining in the storm clouds.

On Friday, Pipas told reporters that its share of the U.S. market is expected to increase for the third consecutive month.

Ford has seen its market share decline steadily for more than a decade. For the year as a whole, Ford expects to hold on to just over 14 percent of the U.S. market, losing four- or five-tenths of a percentage point. That would be the lowest annual decline in Ford's market share since the 1990s.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. are the only two major automakers expected to gain share, Pipas said.

Still, he said Ford's December sales will be down about 35 percent -- a significant drop, but not as bad as the industry as a whole.

GM says its sales will be down sharply, though not as much as last month when they dropped 41 percent.

GM's North American sales and marketing chief Mark LaNeve said sales are "up considerably from November," adding the easing of credit restrictions by GMAC LLC following a $6 billion federal bailout at the end of the month gave dealers a much-needed boost.

"There's been a lot of enthusiasm from dealers," he said, adding that many are already reporting a spike in inquiries from potential customers and increased showroom traffic. "They've seen obviously a huge morale lift."

Patel is not quite as optimistic. He projects GM sales will be down 44 percent, with Ford sales falling 34 percent and Chrysler's down a staggering 52 percent.

"I can't forecast how sales will wind up for the month, but we do know that fleet sales are down significantly," said Chrysler spokesman Stuart Schorr.

While Detroit's automakers may be eager to see 2008 in the rearview mirror, 2009 is not shaping up as much better.

Ford is concerned that the big incentives offered by some manufacturers last month could result in even worse sales in January and February.

"We're not looking for the first quarter to be much different," Pipas said. "We expect to see similar sales rates."

Ford expects double-digit sales declines to continue into the second quarter of the new year -- and that is the optimistic forecast. If the recession deepens, the numbers could be even worse.

Many have blamed the credit crunch for the decline in car and truck sales. Pipas said that is a factor, but the real problem is the underlying economy.

Ford expects unemployment rates to increase through the year, and even a return to easier credit is unlikely to induce people to buy a new vehicle if they are worried about losing their jobs.

Other economists agree that there is no evidence that the worst has passed.

Said Nigel Gault, chief economist for IHS Global Insight: "We are not looking for signs of recovery yet, merely for signs that the rate of decline is becoming less severe -- but cannot find them."