Detroit Auto Sales Likely to Struggle Again

U.S. car and truck sales are likely to rebound in December from a disappointing November, but the bulk of the gain is expected to come from Asian automakers, analysts said.

For most of 2004, Japanese automakers have been relentlessly increasing their share of the U.S. market, stealing sales from Ford (F) and General Motors (GM), who have been struggling with issues ranging from excess inventory to changing consumer tastes.

"So far, the big Japanese makers -- Honda (search), Toyota (search) and Nissan (search) -- are having another stellar month, while we think GM and Ford are down," Merrill Lynch analyst John Casesa said in a recent research note.

The Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX), however, is expected to continue its string of seven straight months of stronger results, some analysts said.

Chrysler sales could rise 2 percent in December, said Casesa, who expects industry sales for December to come in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 17.6 million units, up from the 16.4 million rate in November.

Analyst estimates for December vary, ranging from an annualized rate of 17.2 million to 17.6 million units.

Automakers are expected to report U.S. sales for the month of December on Tuesday, Jan. 4.

"Americans probably bought more cars and trucks than were good for them during the last recession," Burnham Securities analyst David Healy said. "The upshot is that the recovery in unit vehicle sales that usually accompanies an economic recovery will, in this cycle, be weak or even missing entirely."

Most analysts expect that General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. will post weaker sales in December than in the year-earlier month. GM and Ford have struggled with growing inventories of unsold vehicles this year, as sales of their aging car lineups slipped despite aggressive incentives and consumer tastes shifted from their stable of large sport utility vehicles.

Lower sales and high inventories have forced both automakers to cut targeted production for the fourth quarter of 2004 and the first quarter of 2005.

GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said earlier this month the automaker's U.S. sales would fail to match last December's strong levels.

"Last year was obviously a boom year there, and we aren't going to make those kind of numbers this year. But we're hoping for a strong close," Wagoner said.

Last December, GM's U.S. market share hit nearly 31 percent, far above its total market share for 2003 of about 28.2 percent for its U.S. brands. U.S. sales by the world's largest automaker have fallen about 1 percent this year.

To boost sales this month, GM launched its "Red Tag Sale," which offers cash rebates of up to $8,000 on 2004 models, and up to $5,000 on 2005 models.

"Our guess is that GM's sales and market share in December will snap back from November's dismal performance, but fall well short of the extraordinary level of December 2003," Healy said.

Analysts had expected stronger results for November, but sales fell as many consumers may have postponed buying new cars or trucks until this month.

Ford is expected to post its seventh consecutive month of lower year-over-year sales, analysts said. The second-largest U.S. automaker has been trying to become less reliant on low-margin fleet and daily-rental sales.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. are seen leading stronger results for most foreign automakers. But Mitsubishi Motors Corp., hit by a recall scandal in Japan, would post another double-digit drop in sales, analysts said.