DETROIT – The auto industry’s five-year party may not be over, but August sales reports indicate things are starting to slow down.
Ford sales were down 8.4 percent. General Motors’ dropped 5.2 percent. Toyota sales sank 5 percent. Honda’s declined by 3.8 percent. And Nissan saw sales fall 6.5 percent. Fiat Chrysler bucked the trend with a 3 percent increase, but nearly one in four of those sales were to a commercial outlet, government or daily rental fleet.
Last year, Americans bought or leased 17.5 million new cars and trucks, a record. This year, the total is expected to come in a few hundred thousand lower, still a large pie for the major players to divvy up, especially in contrast to the dismal 10.4 million of 2009.
“These are still very high levels of sales, but we will see each company execute a different strategy,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with Autotrader.com.
Sales can’t go up forever. Auto sales rebounded much earlier and much steadier over the past six years than the housing market did. It helped that lenders were willing to relax credit standards. Now the housing sector is looking strong, so some households are deferring new-car purchases because they have a hefty mortgage payment.
“We had a period of several years where growth in auto sales outpaced overall economic growth and that period is over,” said Bryan Bezold, Ford’s senior U.S. economist. “We don’t have a lot of pent-up demand now like we did coming out of the economic crisis.”
Each automaker faces a choice: either ratchet up rebates and cut-rate financing or surgically cut production of vehicles that just aren’t selling.
The good news is the average price consumers are willing to pay for the car or truck they want remains near record levels — $34,143 in August, said Kelley Blue Book, up 2.6 percent from August 2015. The risk is that it may take more aggressive marketing lures to close the deal. Trade-in values are softening. So some consumers eventually may have to borrow more than they planned or settle for a lower-priced vehicle.