Auto sales fall three straight months for first time since recession

Michael Wayland, and Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Editor's note: This article has been edited to include updated sales figures from Ford Motor Co. and Autodata Corp. The original article included estimated results due to Ford reporting sales a day late.

Auto sales fell 5.8 percent in October, marking the first time since the beginning of the Great Recession that sales of new cars and trucks in the United States declined for three consecutive months.

Despite the slight drop, analysts don’t seem alarmed and aren’t expecting any repeat of the last time this negative trend occurred, when year-over-year monthly sales from November 2007 until August 2009 fell and sent two of Detroit’s three automakers into government-backed bankruptcies.

“The auto sales rate is still very high. It’s just not as high as we saw last year, which was during a record sales year,” said senior analyst Jessica Caldwell. “I think it comes to a point where all of the pent-up demand is exhausted; the sales rate has to naturally slow once you’ve been at a peak.”

The yearly rate of sales for October was 18.02 million, according to Autodata Corp. That’s in line with the 18.18 million in October 2015 and the highest rate of 2016, with a 0.8-percent increase in light truck sales last month offsetting a 14.8 decline in passenger cars.

The estimated drop in October was primarily blamed on two fewer selling days last month compared to a year ago, which should help bolster November sales.

Nearly every major automaker, including the Detroit Three, posted sales declines in October. Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV both posted double-digit declines of 11.9 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively. General Motors Co. beat analyst expectations, with sales down only 1.7 percent.

Caldwell and other industry analysts say the recent rise in incentives and slight sales declines since August, including less than 1 percent in September and 4.1 percent in August, aren’t red flags for the industry. Overall economic factors, available financing and credit and other industry trends remain healthy, they say.

“Key fundamentals like job security, rising personal incomes, low fuel prices and low interest rates continue to provide the environment for a very healthy U.S. auto industry,” GM Chief Economist Mustafa Mohatarem said in a statement. “The U.S. auto industry is well positioned for sales to continue at or near record levels for the foreseeable future.”

How the industry reacts to a sales plateau is key for the industry staying strong, according to analysts. They must remain disciplined on incentive spending and keep production in line with demand.

“While we see some inventories rising as well as incentives, we’re also seeing discipline exercised by the automakers. ... I think history has not been forgotten by auto executives,” said Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs. “They do not want a repeat of the days of super-high inventories that require ludicrous incentives to move that metal.”

Krebs cited Ford’s decision last month to halt production of the Mustang to align production with demand. She said she expects other automakers to do the same with slow-selling cars, as consumers turn more toward crossovers, pickups and SUVs.

“The truck and SUV market remains strong in the U.S.,” said elley Blue Book senior market analyst Alec Gutierrez, adding the vehicles are more typically more profitable for automakers and can offer more incentives while retaining healthy profits.

GM for years has cited its plan to put profits over sales. The Detroit-based automaker, which last week reported a North American profit margin of 11.2 percent for the third quarter, said it sold 258,626 vehicles in October, down 1.7 percent from a year ago.

“We gained profitable retail share in October while spending less than the industry average on incentives and commanding the industry’s best average transaction prices for any full-line automaker,” Kurt McNeil, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales operations, said in a statement. “We will continue our disciplined approach and focus on retail in a strong industry.”

GM said its average retail sales prices after incentives hit $36,155 in October, $4,650 higher than the industry average and more than $1,000 above its October 2015 results.

Fiat Chrysler on Tuesday said its 10.3 percent decline in October was a result of retail sales declining 6 percent as well as a 23 percent drop in fleet sales. The decline in fleet is a result of its strategy of reducing sales to daily rental companies, a company spokesman said.

All of the company’s brands, except for Ram Truck posted year-over-year sales declines. Ram sales jumped 11.5 percent from October 2015, as Ram pickups and the ProMaster vans posted increases.

The hot-selling Jeep brand cooled a bit in October, as sales fell 6.6 percent from a year ago. Chrysler brand sales sank 44.7 percent, Dodge sales slipped 16.4 percent and Fiat brand sales fell 24.3 percent. The Alfa brand sold 23 cars, down from 58 in October 2015.

Ford, which reported its sales a day later than all other automakers due to a fire at its world headquarters in Dearborn on Monday, had  sales drop 11.9 percent in October to 187,692 vehicles, as car, SUV and truck sales all fell year-over-year.

Ford brand sales were down 12.5 percent in October vs. the same month in 2015, while Lincoln brand sales rose 6.9 percent.

Hyundai Motor Co. and Subaru were the exceptions in October: Both reported roughly 4 percent increases for last month compared to October 2015.

Industry analysts continue to forecast U.S. auto sales to come close to the all-time record of 17.47 million vehicles sold in 2015, as sales through the first 10 months of the year remain almost even with the same time period a year ago.

“Regardless of whether or not 2016 vehicle sales surpass last year, 2016 will turn out to be another very strong year for the industry, particularly from the perspective of the depths of the recession in 2009-11,” Tom Libby, IHS Markit manager of loyalty solutions and industry analysis, said in a statement. “It’s easy to lose sight of how far we have come from six years ago.”

(313) 222-2504

Twitter: @MikeWayland