THE ECONOMY : U.S. Car Sales Decline 2.8% in December

From Reuters

The slumping U.S. auto industry reported more bleak news Thursday when car makers said sales of North American-made cars fell 2.8% in mid-December.

The auto makers' poor showing sent the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate skidding to 5.2 million vehicles, the lowest rate for a 10-day period since mid-December last year.

Analysts said the weak sales rate is particularly troublesome because it already takes into account weaker sales ahead of Christmas. The early December rate was 5.4 million units.

"It's obvious things have continued to get worse," said James Bush, editor of Ward's Automotive Reports. "The SAAR (seasonally adjusted annual rate) is supposed to adjust for the fact that people are buying Christmas gifts instead of cars, so even though they didn't sell many cars, they weren't supposed to."

Detroit's three U.S. auto makers and seven Japanese firms with production plants in the United States and Canada said they sold 124,312 cars between Dec. 11 and Dec. 20, contrasted with 127,933 units a year earlier.

But light truck sales rose 5.6% to 83,718 from 79,289 one year ago.

Analysts said the dismal sales reports by Detroit's Big Three--Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp.--are expected to give President Bush plenty of ammunition when he meets with Japanese officials to discuss trade issues next week.

Big Three car sales fell 7.3% to 100,719 from 108,620 a year earlier, while Japanese transplant sales jumped 22.2% to 23,593 cars.

Honda Motor Co. reported the biggest sales gain, with sales up 84.4% to 9,473 vehicles.

And Toyota Motor Corp. said car sales surged 21.3% to 7,604 vehicles from 6,270 units.

Ford said domestic car sales slipped 5.9% to 30,447 vehicles, contrasted with 32,364 units a year ago.

Bush is expected to press Japan for concrete steps aimed at reducing the $42-billion trade gap with the United States--75% of which is related to the automobile industry.

Speaking at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Robert Rewey, Ford's vice president for sales, said the company expects total U.S. vehicle sales to increase about 8% in 1992 over 1991 levels.

GM said car sales fell 5.2% to 56,872 from 59,978 in the year-earlier period, while light truck sales slipped 7.3% to 31,626 from 34,119.

Ward's Automotive Reports estimated that Chrysler's car sales tumbled 17.7% to 13,400 units from 16,278 but light truck sales, including minivans, rose 15.6% to 18,500 from 16,000 vehicles.

Chrysler only reports monthly auto sales figures.

Thomas Webb, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Assn., said the sales weakness justified the Fed's decision to trim the discount rate, but further action may be needed to jump-start sluggish auto sales.

"Further monetary stimulus may be needed to ensure a turnaround before the all-important spring market," Webb said.

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