Feb. Auto Sales Likely to Disappoint

U.S. auto sales followed a familiar pattern in February with General Motors Corp. (GM) and Ford Motor Co. (F), both seemingly stuck in reverse, losing more market share to fast-growing foreign rivals, analysts said Friday.

"We are expecting both to be down," Jeff Schuster, executive director of global auto industry forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates, said of GM and Ford.

"In fact, both will likely be showing double-digit declines compared to February of last year," Schuster told Reuters.

Overall, and barring any big surprises before results are reported next Tuesday, analysts say U.S. new car and truck sales fell moderately from a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.5 million in February last year.

"It's probably going to end up down just slightly vs. a year ago," said Paul Ballew, executive director of global market and industry analysis at GM.

"The industry is still coming off that record December," Ballew added. He was referring to the 18.3 million annual sales rate two months ago, when heavy year-end consumer incentives pushed U.S. vehicle sales to their highest level since an October 2001 record.

Some industry analysts blamed harsh winter weather for the fact that February sales could match last month's disappointing rate of 16.2 million vehicles. But Art Spinella, head of CNW Marketing Research (search), said concerns about rising interest rates were more to blame.

With the prevalence of consumer incentives, most people are convinced they can always get a good deal on a car, said Spinella. But Americans want to lock in relatively low mortgage or home improvement loans now, before rates go any higher.

"The housing market is sucking money out of the automotive sector. People who are buying houses are postponing their car purchases," he said.

Highlighting the underlying weakness in sales, Spinella said incentive spending by automakers had "gone through the roof" in the second half of February.

"This is affecting everybody, it's not just the Big Three. You're seeing Honda and Toyota and Nissan, especially Honda and Toyota, offering some incredibly good lease deals that we haven't seen since the middle '90s," he said.

The Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX) is expected to report another gain in sales, boosted by the continuing popularity of its new cars.

Asia's Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. (search) and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (search) are likely to stand out among the month's winners, with both posting double-digit gains, analysts said. Toyota Motor Corp. (search) , which has eclipsed Ford as the world's second-largest automaker, should see its sales rise only slightly, meanwhile, and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. (search) is seen posting weaker sales, as it did in January.

Weaker sales at GM and Ford — where sales have dropped for eight straight months through January — raise the prospect of more production cuts in the second quarter. Both already slashed first-quarter production by about 9 percent, in a move almost certain to hurt their financial results since automakers book profits on vehicles when they are shipped from factories and not when they move off dealership lots.

"A short answer would be yes, we could see further production cuts as a result of the weakness in February," J.D. Power's Schuster said.

Schuster said GM or Ford were likely to wait at least until March before announcing the cuts, and effectively bowing to more erosion in their market position.

Another analyst, who asked not to be identified, said the companies would announce further cuts in planned output on Tuesday, however, when they release their February sales.

"Certainly it's not exactly positive news for either of them," he said. "There's going to be some continued weakness just because some of the slower vehicles are getting a little more tired and others are just underperforming."

Ford and GM, the world's largest automaker, both lost U.S. market share to their top Asian rivals last year.