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Analysts: Auto sales recovery under way, but may take longer

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Analysts: Auto sales recovery under way, but may take longer

Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

Last month's weak auto sales crushed hopes for a rebound in demand this year. Auto executives and analysts increasingly see 2010 sales coming in at the low end of their forecasts ranging between 11.5 million and 12 million light vehicles. That would be only about a million vehicles above last year's disastrously low 10.4 million.

But financial analysts sifting through the monthly sales data have spotted trends that may indicate that while the recovery may take longer than anticipated, it's still under way.

Truck sales are rising, signaling higher investment outlays by contractors and other businesses that rely on trucks. Fleet demand has strengthened, in another good economic sign. And consumers are saving more -- which suggests they're feeling skittish now, but when their confidence does improve, they'll be in a stronger financial position to buy a vehicle.

Because of the barrage of mixed and discouraging economic data coming out, consumers aren't likely to recover their confidence quickly. "We still see no signs of recovery in demand and therefore think sales are likely to stay in the 11 million to 12 million range for the time being," said J.P. Morgan analyst Kohei Takahashi.

So far this year, the annualized sales rate is tracking at 11.3 million vehicles. August's selling pace of 11.47 million cars and light trucks was expected to be lower than last August's artificially inflated 14.17 million pace. But it also slipped behind June's 11.54 million selling pace.

But key segments are starting to show strength. J. P. Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel notes that pickup sales accounted for 12.2 percent of total light vehicle sales in August, similar to July and up from 11.6 percent in June and 11.1 percent in May. "Automakers mentioned that strength in pickup truck sales was a result of the comeback of small commercial buyers," he wrote in a report.

James Bell, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book, says some car shoppers may have held off in August to see what kind of deals would be on offer during the Labor Day weekend. Bell noted that one reason demand is recovering so slowly is Detroit's restructured automakers are under less financial pressure to sell cars at any cost.

"Manufacturers seem to have learned hard lessons from the past and are holding production levels in line with real and honest demand," Bell said. "If consumers are waiting for a 'fire sale', then chances are they will be kept in anticipation for a very long time. We see that incentives are up, year-over-year, but not at the insane levels I think some consumers are looking for."

According to research site Edmunds.com, August incentives averaged $2,681 per vehicle, down from $2,765 in July and only slightly higher than last August's $2,456 -- when the government also was offering incentives to encourage customers to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Surprisingly, Detroit's automakers have been profitable through this tough year because they slashed costs during their restructurings and bankruptcies. But the industry still needs to see a recovery in sales from current levels.

Itay Michaeli of Citi Investment Research & Analysis says automakers should seek creative solutions to stoke demand. He cited Hyundai Motor Co.'s Assurance program introduced in January 2009 that allowed customers to return a car during the first year of ownership.

W.P. Browne Consulting estimates sales this year will total 11.3 million light vehicles. Standard & Poor's Ratings Services trimmed its annual sales forecast to 11.4 million light vehicles this year, rising next year to 13.3 million.

"We have lowered the 2010 forecast slightly this year because prospects for a more robust economic recovery have waned," S&P said in a statement. "Even the 2011 sales forecast is only about equivalent to our estimate of replacement-level sales."

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20100905/AUTO01/9050308/1148/auto01/Analysts--Auto-sales-recovery-under-way--but-may-take-longer#ixzz0ylT8zUPU

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