China auto sales likely tumbled 18% in January, coronavirus seen taking heavy toll

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China’s vehicle sales likely fell by almost a fifth in January, marking a 19th consecutive month of decline, hurt by Lunar New Year holidays that started earlier than last year and by the coronavirus outbreak.

FILE PHOTO: A carrier trailer transports newly manufactured cars at a port in Dalian, Liaoning province, China May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

The epidemic will hit auto sales and production hard in the short term, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said, predicting competition in the industry would get fiercer and some smaller parts suppliers could collapse.

Preliminary data for January shows vehicle sales tumbled 18% while sales of battery electric and other so-called new energy vehicles plunged 54.4%, down for a seventh month in a row, the association said.

It did not give absolute figures.

Although the earlier start to the holidays, when consumers don’t do much shopping, was the main factor behind the dismal numbers, local governments began imposing travel curbs and warning residents to avoid public spaces in the last two weeks of January.

An extension of the holidays to counter the virus also discouraged dealers from ordering cars at the end of the month as is their usual practice.

“Due to the extension of the holidays, the shortage of workers and auto parts, we predict that the production of more than one million vehicles will be impacted by the coronavirus epidemic,” Chen Shihua, a senior association official said.

The association said last month sales are likely to shrink 2% in 2020, a third straight year of contraction.

In Hubei province where the outbreak began and a major car manufacturing hub responsible for nearly 9% of China's output, Dongfeng Motor Group Co Ltd 0489.HK and its partners Honda Motor Co Ltd 7267.T, Renault SA RENA.PA and Peugeot SA PEUP.PA have all said they are delaying the restart of production.

Tesla Inc TSLA.O, which started delivering cars built at its $2 billion plant in Shanghai last month, restarted production in Shanghai on Monday with local government help.

Those operating plants outside Hubei province such as Volkswagen AG VOWG_p.DE and General Motors Co GM.N have said they will keep some factories idled for an extra one or more weeks.

Industry sales fell 8.2% last year, pressured by new emission standards in a shrinking economy and by trade tension with the United States.

Reporting by Yilei Sun and Brenda Goh; Editing by Edwina Gibbs