April 1, 2009 / 7:08 PM / 11 years ago

GM U.S. sales drop 45 percent, sees signs of bottom

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Corp on Wednesday reported a 45 percent decline in auto sales for March in the U.S. market, but the drop was broadly within expectations for the struggling automaker.

Chevrolet cars made by General Motors are seen for sale at a Denver dealership February 26, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

GM executives, echoing comments from other major automakers, said there were some signs that industry-wide auto sales were starting to stabilize after a brutal decline over the past year and a half.

Shares of GM, which had been down as much as 19 percent in earlier trading on Wednesday, erased most of their losses.

Shares of the automaker, which could face bankruptcy by June as it operates under federal oversight, were down 3 percent in afternoon trade.

In March, the White House-appointed autos panel was weighing the fate of GM and its smaller rival Chrysler LLC.

The panel, which is headed by former investment banker Steve Rattner, on Monday gave GM 60 days to reach cost-saving deals with its bondholders and its major union and threatened that it could be pushed into bankruptcy.

But President Barack Obama also repeated his support for preserving the U.S. auto industry and his administration offered to backstop the warranties offered by GM and Chrysler.

GM executives said industry-wide sales closed the month on a strong note and seemed to move higher for all of the major automakers after Obama’s televised remarks on the auto industry on Monday.

“He may have given the whole industry a lift,” GM sales analyst Mike DiGiovanni told reporters and analysts. “Obama may have reassured consumers in general.”

GM’s sales were up from February and DiGiovanni said there were other economic indicators that suggested the U.S. auto market was starting to stabilize after 17 consecutive months of year-on-year sales declines.

Although unemployment continues to rise and home prices are still falling, the decline in mortgage rates and recent rally in stocks point toward a pickup in auto sales, he said.

GM joined rivals Ford Motor Co and Hyundai Motor Co in offering incentive programs for April that will cover some car payments for buyers who lose their jobs.

“Hopefully, we’re bouncing around the bottom here,” DiGiovanni said.

GM sold 155,334 cars and light trucks in March compared with 280,713 units a year earlier.

Reporting by Kevin Krolicki, editing by Dave Zimmerman

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