It wasn’t long ago that a slow sales month in China’s auto market would be growth that dipped from double to single digits. Those times are over.
So far this year, the average increase in monthly new-auto sales in the world’s largest auto market is less than 2 percent, down from an average monthly growth of nearly 10 percent last year, an analysis of numbers from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers shows.
In August, American consumers bought more cars than the Chinese for the third time this year as Chinese consumer confidence has plummeted as rapidly as last month’s rout in the local stock markets. U.S. car buyers also slightly outpaced their Chinese counterparts in May for the first time since August 2009, according to sales numbers from the CAAM, Kelley Blue Book and Ward’s Automotive Group. The growth in new-car sales – a key measure of a country’s consumer activity – between the two countries hasn’t been this close in years.
Chinese consumers tend to react more quickly to shifting economic tides. Unlike in the U.S., most Chinese consumers buy cars with cash, making them more likely to pull back quickly on spending than credit-addicted American shoppers.
“The U.S. consumer is feeling more confident, so they are willing to splash out on new cars,” said Lian Hoon Lim, managing director at consulting firm AlixPartners, in an interview with Bloomberg News in Shanghai. “They are playing catch-up at the same time as the market here is saying, ‘Oh, I’ve already grown so much, it’s time to slow down.’"
Total U.S. new car, truck and SUV sales hit 1.58 million units in August, racing past China’s 1.42 million sales, which represented a 3.4 percent drop from the same month last year. In May, China’s sales went into negative territory for the first time since early 2013.
“A significant rebound in [China’s] light vehicle sales is unlikely in the coming months,” said a research note from IHS Automotive, which on Thursday slashed its annual sale growth forecast from 4.4 percent to 1.4 percent. The global industry insight firm expects China new-car sales to hit 23.4 million units for 2015, up from 23.1 million last year. In 2013, Chinese new-auto sales jumped 15 percent to 21.4 million, but another year of double-digit growth isn’t likely before the end of the decade.
This is still a massive number of cars. The U.S. is expected to top 17 million new-car sales this year for the first time in more than a decade, but it isn’t likely to overtake Chinese demand anytime soon.