March 2, 2021

Despite Rising U.S. Sales, Automakers Are Struggling

Honda and Toyota each reported large declines, as they have each month since production was slowed by the earthquake and tsunami in March. Toyota said it did not expect to post a year-over-year increase until early 2012. Sales fell 28.4 percent at Honda and 22.7 percent at Toyota.

Most other major carmakers reported modest increases, including gains of 7.6 percent for General Motors and 6.1 percent for the Ford Motor Company, which included 2010 sales by the Volvo brand, which it has since sold. Nissan, which avoided significant disruption after the earthquake, said sales were up 2.7 percent and even surpassed Honda to rank as the nation’s fifth-largest seller.

Chrysler’s sales rose 20.1 percent, but the head of its United States sales division, Reid Bigland, described the market as “tougher than a cheap steak.” Over all, light-vehicle sales rose 0.9 percent.

“The recovery is clearly in a stall mode,” said Paul Ballew, the chief economist at Nationwide Insurance and a former G.M. sales analyst. “It’s hard to see sales sprinting forward without some help on job and income growth. There’s a lot of wind that’s really out of the consumer’s sails right now.”

The seasonally adjusted, annualized sales rate climbed to 12.23 million in July, the highest since April, according to the industry tracking firm Autodata. The rate, a closely watched indication of the industry’s health, was 11.55 million a year ago and 11.45 million in June.

Analysts said they expected sales to rebound somewhat in the coming months but remain below the levels experienced in the first quarter, which would make for a disappointing end to a year that began with considerable promise.

Increases in unemployment and economic fears caused by the debt-ceiling debate in Washington were among the factors deterring car shoppers in July, analysts said. Even though Congressional leaders reached a last-minute deal to avoid a federal default, the issue will continue to cast a shadow on auto sales, said John Hoffecker, a managing director of the restructuring firm AlixPartners.

“What it brought to the forefront in many people’s minds is the shape the country is in, and raising the ceiling does not solve those concerns,” Mr. Hoffecker said. “We don’t see a significant pickup happening between now and the end of the year.”

In addition, the Japanese automakers still are working to replenish inventories of popular vehicles like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Honda has said it expects plants to be essentially back to normal this month, and Toyota has said full output would resume by September.

But Randy Pflughaupt, a group vice president for Toyota’s United States sales administration, said dealer inventories would remain below year-ago levels through the end of the year.

Peter Nesvold, an analyst with Jefferies and Company, wrote in a report last week that “the Japanese companies should start to regain some of the market share lost over the past four months as production and inventory gradually improve.” Mr. Nesvold forecast that September would be the first month since April in which sales reflected true demand rather than low inventories.

Meanwhile, Toyota and Honda have been piling on discounts in the hopes of encouraging consumers to make a purchase. Incentives on Japanese vehicles were 24.5 percent higher in July than in June, at an average of nearly $2,000 per vehicle, according to That compares to an increase of 7.6 percent in incentives on all vehicles.

“With production working its way back to normal, the Japanese are making a strong play for their lost market share and American automakers may need to kick in more incentives as they fight for more consumers,” said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at, a Web site that provides car-buying advice for consumers.

Ford and G.M. have been affected by inventory issues, as well. Their most fuel-efficient models, including the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze compact cars, have become scarce as consumers seek refuge from high gas prices, but the companies have been reluctant to add extra shifts given the fragile state of the economy. Instead, they are trying to increase output through lower-cost, less permanent actions like running some plants on overtime.

“We’re shipping everything we can to meet consumer demand,” said Ken Czubay, Ford’s vice president for United States marketing, sales and service. “But consumers are telling us they want two more than we can produce. We’re running flat out.”

At the same time, supplies of pickup trucks and larger vehicles have been ballooning, creating concerns among analysts that the companies will start slashing prices to keep dealer lots from growing too crowded.

The uncertain sales environment cut into the second-quarter earnings reported by Ford and Chrysler last week. General Motors is expected to report a second-quarter profit on Thursday.

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