U.S. auto sales for June slipped from the pace of recent months, analysts say, raising doubts about whether the industry's recovery is faltering even before it delivers the second-half upturn automakers expected.
A Reuters poll of 41 analysts shows an average estimate of June auto sales at 11.4 million vehicles on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis, up from 9.7 million a year earlier.
The monthly sales results, viewed as one of the earliest snapshots of American consumer demand, underscore the still fragile state of the industry's recovery as consumers remain concerned about weak housing and employment markets.
The estimated June sales rate would mark a decline from 11.6 million vehicles in May and from the 11.5 million average sales rate over the prior three months.
There is an increase on the horizon, but just how fast it increases and at what pace, I think, is debatable, GM North America President Mark Reuss told analysts on Wednesday.
It's still a very delicate recovery. We feel a little bit of moderation and volatility going on in the market right now, Reuss said.
If June sales results are as weak as expected, that would leave the average rate for the first half of this year at just over 11 million units.
In that case, the industry would have to sell nearly 13 million vehicles at an annualized rate in the second half to arrive at the midpoint of Wall Street expectations.
Analysts and executives have projected 2010 U.S. sales of 11.5 million to 12.5 million units.
Leading industry forecasting firm J.D.Power and Associates said retail demand for new vehicles worsened near the end of the month, increasing the risk the June selling rate may come in well below 10.9 million units.
A drop in sales below the 10.9 million unit mark would represent the weakest tally for the industry since February 2010.
The weakest month of the downturn was February 2009 when the industry recorded a sales rate of just under 9.2 million, the lowest since 1981.
It appears that the volatility in the stock market and downbeat economic reports have caused a decrease in consumer confidence, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy, said Jeff Schuster, director at industry forecasting firm J.D.Power.
Consumers are clearly hunkering down in light of the current environment, waiting for signs of a renewed recovery.
DETROIT GAINS, TOYOTA LAGS
Analysts expect most automakers, led by GM GM.UL, to show double-digit percentage gains in sales from the depressed sales results of a year earlier. That would represent the eighth consecutive month of year-on-year gains.
Industry tracking firm Edmunds.com sees GM sales up 17 percent in June from a year earlier, while projecting gains of 33 percent for Chrysler (FIA.MI) and 17 percent for Ford Motor Co (F.N).
Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) (TM.N), tarnished by a series of safety recalls earlier this year, lagged rivals even after it extended sales incentives for a fourth consecutive month to win back consumers, Edmunds said.
The forecasting firm expects Toyota to post gains of 9 percent in June U.S. sales, less than gains of 10 percent and 25 percent it sees for Honda Motor Co (7267.T) and Nissan Motor Co (7201.T), respectively.
Overall, incentives in June held flat from May but rose 6 percent from a year ago led by Toyota, industry tracking firm Truecar.com said. Toyota spent 33 percent more on discounts per vehicle in June than a year ago, sharply above the industry's average of $2,870 per vehicle.
With the recovery not progressing as expected, it's gut-check time for the automotive industry, Schuster said.
The industry's (pricing) discipline will be put to the test even more in the coming months if a more pronounced recovery doesn't get under way.
One key measure for the industry will be retail sales of cars, trucks, SUVs and crossovers. Sales gains in recent months, especially for Detroit automakers, have been boosted by sales of less-profitable vehicles to fleet operators, including car rental agencies.
Most automakers do not break out how many of their sales went to consumers and how many to fleet operators.
In one indicator of underlying consumer demand, AutoNation Inc (AN.N), the leading auto dealership chain, will release its own sales figures on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall, editing by Matthew Lewis)