Ford sees sharp drop in U.S. sales

DEARBORN, Mich (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co F.N expects industry-wide December U.S. auto sales to drop by some 35 percent from a year earlier with no sign of a turnaround in the first quarter of this year.

Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, expects that full-year sales of light vehicles in the world’s largest market will drop to near 13.2 million for 2008, down from near 16.2 million in 2007, Ford’s chief sales analyst George Pipas said on Friday.

The only other time the U.S. auto industry has seen a similar 3-million unit plunge in sales over the course of a single year was during 1974 in the wake of the first oil shock, Pipas told reporters.

Major automakers are set to release December and full-year 2008 sales data on Monday. Analysts have said they see December light-vehicle sales slipping below the 10.2 million unit sales rate recorded a month earlier.

Annualized auto sales rates have declined on a quarter-to-quarter basis throughout 2008. The sales rate fell from 15.6 million vehicles in the first quarter to an estimated 10.6 million in the fourth quarter. Those figures include medium and heavy-duty truck sales of about 300,000 units on an annual basis.

“The sales rates have declined like a lead balloon, really,” Pipas said. “I think when December comes in every segment will be down. Not one segment will be up versus a year ago.”

“We’re not looking for the first quarter to be much different from what we saw in the fourth quarter,” Pipas said.

The sharpest sales declines in 2008 came in full-size SUVs, a gas-guzzling category that U.S. consumers abandoned during the spring and summer spike in oil prices.

On a full-year basis, Pipas said, 2008 is on track to become the first year since 2000 that passenger cars have outsold light trucks in the United States. The light trucks category includes: pickups, SUVs and minivans.

Manufacturers have responded to the slump in truck sales with aggressive discounts in recent months, including cash rebates and low-rate financing.

Pipas said data tracked by Ford showed the average incentive on a full-size pickup truck was between $7,000 and $8,000 in December and near $7,000 for a full-size SUV.

By contrast, the average discount on a compact car was just $1,300 and near $2,000 for a mid-size car, he said.

With manufacturers scrambling to clear year-end inventory, average sales incentives across all vehicle segments were up about $900 in December from a year earlier, Pipas said.

Pipas said Ford expects that its own 2008 market share will end up just over 14 percent, down by about half a percentage point from a 14.6 percent share a year earlier.

In order to regain market share, Ford recognizes that it needs to have a more competitive line-up of small vehicles on the market reflecting the increasing importance of that segment, Pipas said.

Unlike its Detroit-based rivals General Motors Corp GM.N and Chrysler LLC, Ford has not sought an emergency loan from the U.S. government.

The No. 2 U.S. automaker, which borrowed more than $23 billion in 2006, has attempted to use its better financial position and recent quality gains to distinguish itself from its battered competitors in the eyes of car shoppers.

GM and Chrysler were given a $17.4 billion bailout from the Bush administration. Ford has sought a $9 billion credit line from the government if the ongoing recession runs deeper and longer than it expects.

But Pipas said Ford’s sales planners expected to see industry-wide U.S. auto sales declines of between 20 percent and 30 percent in monthly sales reports in the first quarter.

Second-quarter sales results are also expected to show double-digit percentage declines, he said.

Ford does not expect U.S. auto sales to begin to stabilize until the second half of 2009 based on the view that the U.S. economy will begin to improve late this year, Pipas said.

Editing by Leslie Gevirtz