2016 Car Sales to Set New Record

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On Wednesday, January 4, automakers will report U.S. light vehicle (cars and light trucks) sales for the month of December and for all of 2016. December sales are expected to be a bit below December 2015 totals, but full-year totals could (barely) top 2015’s record of 17.4 million units sold.

General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) is expected to sell around 301,000 units in December, a rise of about 3.1% year over year, for a market share of 18.8%, according to Kelley Blue Book (KBB). Edmunds has GM unit sales pegged at 299,286 for a market share of 18.4%.

Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F), according to KBB, will sell 232,000 units in December, a year-over-year drop of 2.4%, for a market share of 14.5%. Edmunds forecasts Ford sales at 233,696 units for a market share of 14.3%.

KBB forecasts that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. (NYSE: FCAU) will sell 190,000 units in December, down 11.2% year over year, for a market share of 11.9%. Edmunds has sales at 187,821 for a market share of 11.5%.

Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) sales will slide 0.1% year over year to 235,891, with a market share of 14.5%, according to Edmunds. KBB estimates that Toyota will sell 229,000 units in December for a market share of 14.3%.

Analysts at Edmunds.com expect total 2016 light vehicle sales to reach a new annual record of 17.48 million units, up 0.03% (fewer than 5,000 vehicles) over 2015 total sales. J.D. Power and LMC Automotive are projecting yearly sales of 17.5 million, up 5,000 from last year’s total. WardsAuto sees 2016 sales of 17.41 million units, just above the 2015 total of 17.396 million. And KBB estimates full-year sales at 17.4 million units, a total just 0.1% below last year’s total.

While December sales are expected to run behind December 2015 sales, the month-over-month change is forecast to be in the double digits for every automaker, according to Edmunds. J.D. Power-LMC has forecast December sales of 1.6 million units, up 1.4% over the December last year based on one fewer selling day, and up by more than 220,000 units month over month.

LMC Automotive senior vice-president of forecasting Jeff Schuster said:

We project 2016 to be another record for light-vehicle sales, but it will come down to a photo finish. Given the high level of incentives and an increase in fleet volume this year, we expect to see some payback in 2017. However, it may not be evident as the sales volume is expected to be at the same level, with variables that could tip the volume risk slightly in either direction. Positive drivers include a stronger economy with fiscal stimulus and deregulation, Volkswagen’s buyback program and a high number of lease maturities. Negative drivers include a steeper interest rate increase, potential protectionism, a potential pullback in incentive levels and used-car substitution.

Retail transaction prices in December have posted a new record of $32,000, according to LMC.

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If there is an overhang for carmakers it’s inventory. At the end of November, according to WardsAuto, dealer inventory reached 4 million units, the highest ever for the month. Even with strong December sales inventories are expected to continue to be high going into the new year.

Incentives also have reached all-time highs in the past two months of the year and combined with record inventory levels could have a negative impact on carmakers’ profits early in 2017. November incentives topped $4,000 per unit according to J.D. Power-LMC and December’s incentives are expected to climb even higher.