2018 On Track for Better-Than-Expected Car Sales, 2019 Not So Much

When auto industry analysts made their sales forecasts for new vehicle sales in 2018, most expected sales to fall below 17 million for the first time in four years. U.S. consumers were more optimistic.

Both Cox Automotive and Edmunds have now published their sales forecasts for December along with their estimates of full-year sales. Cox estimates a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of 17.2 million new vehicles sold and an actual count of annual sales of 17.2 million vehicles. Edmunds forecasts a SAAR of 17.4 million and actual sales of 17.3 million vehicles.

Jonathan Smoke, Cox Automotive’s chief economist, said:

Retail demand has actually been stronger in the second half of the year, though down from last year. We think that’s a result of low unemployment and tax reform leaving consumers confident and flush with cash. And this holiday season, Santa is delivering lower gas prices to give even more spending power. Credit is widely available, including for some subprime borrowers. Rates have stabilized and softened a bit. If December incentives are focused on key segments such as SUVs, where there has been growing supply, we think more buyers are ready and happy to step in.

Edmunds manager of industry analysis, Jeremy Acevedo, added:

We’ve been saying all year that 2018 would be a down note for the auto industry, but it ended up defying the odds. Automakers are really pulling out all the stops in December to close the year on a high note, and car shoppers seem to be in a buying mood.

Cox and Edmunds are both less sanguine about prospects for 2019. Edmunds did not produce a forecast but warned that high fleet deliveries in 2018 and “unsustainable levels of incentives” boosted sales for the year. Acevedo noted:

Automakers continue to rely heavily on upping fleet sales to mask eroding retail demand, and that’s not a sustainable place to be. A record number of lessees returning to the market should help give dealers a boost in the New Year, but rising interest rates and vehicle costs are going to continue to give car shoppers pause and create uncertainty in the market.

Cox has forecast sales for 2019 at around 16.7 million units. The firm’s analysts do not expect the positive effects of the tax cut to carry over into next year and notes that a recent poll shows that a third of American consumers believe the country’s economy will worsen in 2019.

Automakers’ profitability should remain strong based on higher transaction prices and a favorable product mix. Passenger car sales have tumbled this year and carmakers have switched production to more popular pickups and sport utility vehicles.

Given those factors, 2019 sales volume may depend on automakers’ willingness to provide buyers with price-cutting incentives. Trucks and SUVs have been much more profitable than passenger cars for several years now. Will automakers be willing to slice those profits a bit on each unit in order to sell more? Discounting against higher transaction prices only works until it doesn’t.

Finding that point could be tricky, especially in a year when economic growth is expected to decline in the last six months.