U.S. 2009 auto sales seen at 27-year low

DETROIT Tue Jan 13, 2009 6:25pm EST

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) answers a question from the media as Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (L) listens at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 13, 2009. Cox wrote a column in Monday's Washington Post inviting every member of the U.S. Senate to visit the show. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) answers a question from the media as Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (L) listens at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 13, 2009. Cox wrote a column in Monday's Washington Post inviting every member of the U.S. Senate to visit the show.

Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. auto sales in 2009 should fall about 13 percent and reach their lowest level in 27 years, pressuring the U.S. economy and pushing some automakers closer to the verge of collapse, industry analysts said on Tuesday.

Automotive forecasting firm J.D. Power and Associates expects U.S. light vehicle sales for the year to fall to around 11.4 million units, while Deutsche Bank expects sales of 11.5 million units, representatives said at a Society of Automotive Analysts (SAA) roundtable on the sidelines of the North American International Auto Show.

That would be the lowest sales figure in the United States, the world's largest car market, since the 10.5 million units sold by automakers in 1982.

U.S. auto sales usually account for more than 10 percent of total U.S. consumer spending.

"We believe we're near the bottom, or at the bottom," said J.D. Power president Finbarr O'Neill. "The market will come back, but it won't come back to where it was before."

In the meantime, he added, "there's a lot of speculation about who's going to win and who's going to lose."

U.S. first-quarter 2009 auto sales were seen ticking up to an annualized rate of 10.9 million units, from a rate of 10.2 million in the fourth quarter, he said.

O'Neill said J.D. Power -- whose forecasts are used throughout the auto industry -- expects global auto sales will fall 8.2 percent in 2009.

North American sales should drop 12.3 percent, while car sales in Europe should fall 14.9 percent. Sales in South America and Asia should slide 3.9 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively, according to J.D. Power

"Let's maintain our sense of humor folks," O'Neill told attendees. "We're going to need it."

J.D. Power expects U.S. auto sales to rise to 13.4 million units in 2010 and 14.7 million units in 2011.

The SAA event comes as the U.S. auto industry struggles through one of its worst downturns in decades, with the world's largest economy in recession and consumers unable to obtain loans to buy cars amid the continuing global credit crisis.

"THE WALKING DEAD"

U.S. auto sales dropped 18 percent in 2008, pushing General Motors Corp and Chrysler LLC -- controlled by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP -- to the brink of collapse.

In December the Bush administration approved $17.4 billion in emergency loans for GM and Chrysler. But conditions attached to that bailout include automakers proving their long-term viability by March 31, plus obtaining fresh concessions from the United Auto Workers union and from holders of their debt.

Ford has not sought federal loans but asked for a $9 billion credit line if economic conditions worsen.

Deutsche Bank analyst Rod Lache said that if GM and Ford close the wage gap with Asian rival Toyota Motor Corp they could save $3 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively.

Ford Motor Co senior economist Emily Kolinski-Morris said the automaker expects 2009 U.S. auto sales in a range from 10.5 million to 12.5 million units, with the U.S. recession weighing on sales in the first half of the year.

Favorable government policy in the form of an economic stimulus should lift sales in the second half, she said.

The forecast was consistent with submissions made by Ford to the U.S. Congress in December.

Kolinski-Morris said Ford's U.S. sales prediction includes housing industry declines near the "magnitude of the 1930s," with housing starts falling up to 76 percent from their peak.

J.D. Power's O'Neill said the drop in U.S. auto sales to 13.2 million units in 2008 from more than 16.1 million units in 2007, plus the expected decrease this year, means the industry is "one or two car companies" down in terms of volume.

"Somebody is the walking dead out there," he said.

Deutsche Bank's Lache said that the probability of an automaker going bankrupt as the industry tries to weather the downturn is "greater than not."

"There's no guarantee that all of the automakers are going to survive this process," he said. "There is much more systemic risk than we've ever seen."

(Reporting by Nick Carey and David Bailey)

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