GM, Ford See U.S. Sales Recovery Undeterred by Japan Quake

GM, Ford See U.S. Sales Undeterred
Flags fly outside General Motors Co. world headquarters in Detroit. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., the largest U.S. automakers, said the recovery in their home market may continue in the face of Japan’s disaster.

The March 11 earthquake that has shut factories of manufacturers and their suppliers may not have a “significant” impact on industry sales, Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. sales at Detroit-based GM, said today. Ford said in a regulatory filing that while Japan could have an adverse effect on its financial condition and has led to a parts shortage, the impact on the U.S. economy will be “limited.”

Global automakers may have lost production of 585,000 light vehicles in March including 550,000 in Japan, according to IHS Automotive in Lexington, Massachusetts. The disruptions may result in a 1 million unit reduction in the industry’s U.S. sales rate during the summer months, according to Rod Lache, a New York-based analyst at Deutsche Bank AG who predicted a 13 million rate for March.

“The issues in Japan should be temporary,” Paul Ballew, chief economist for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in Columbus, Ohio, said in a telephone interview. “The production issues are slowly but surely going to get worked out and facilities are coming back online. There’s enough slack capacity out there to make up for lost units.”

GM Reiterates Forecast

GM continues to see industrywide U.S. auto sales rising to 13 million to 13.5 million in 2011, including medium-and heavy-duty vehicles, Johnson said. Light-vehicle sales in 2010 rose to 11.6 million from a 27-year low in 2009. Annual U.S. deliveries were 16.8 million on average from 2000 to 2007, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata.

“Based on everything I see now, I just don’t see a significant slowdown happening,” Johnson said today on a conference call with analysts and reporters. “All of that’s going to depend on what we learn tomorrow, the next day and what we see from our competitors next week.”

Ford’s truck plant in Louisville, Kentucky, will be closed next week due to a Japan-related parts shortage, Ford sales analyst George Pipas said today on a separate conference call with analysts and reporters. The factory makes F-Series pickups and the Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition SUVs, according to Ford’s website.

The shortage of parts, which Ford didn’t identify, also will lead Ford to shut its plant in Genk, Belgium, next week, Pipas said. The factory makes the S-Max and Galaxy vans and Mondeo sedans.

‘Limited’ Effect

The Japan crisis “should not derail the recovery in the U.S.,” Jenny Lin, Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford’s senior U.S. economist, said on the conference call. “The effect on the U.S. economy will be limited.”

GM has also reported interruptions in output the week of March 21 at its Shreveport, Louisiana, pickup plant and factories in Zaragoza, Spain, and Eisenach, Germany.

GM rose $1.38, or 4.5 percent, to $32.41 at 4:15 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, reversing a decline before Johnson’s comments on Japan. Ford gained 25 cents, or 1.7 percent, to $15.16.

Nissan Motor Co., the second-largest Japanese automaker, and its Infiniti luxury brand both have about a 50-day supply of vehicles at the start of April, said Al Castignetti, vice president of U.S. sales for Nissan, and Ben Poore, head of North American sales of Infiniti.

Nissan Pipeline ‘Good’

“Our pipeline looks pretty good, at least where they are through May,” Castignetti said today in a telephone interview. “Will the disruptions in Japan affect our retail ambitions? I think it will to some extent. I think the investigations that are going on are: anything we lose today, what can we get back tomorrow?”

Most vehicle production in Japan stopped after the natural disaster, which left more than 27,000 people dead or missing. Nissan, based in Yokohama, Japan, said yesterday that it plans to resume all auto assembly in its home market by April 11 as suppliers restart parts deliveries.

“Production disruptions generally work themselves out because you’re not fundamentally altering underlying demand,” said Ballew, a former General Motors economist. “You’re temporarily throwing a curve ball into availability of inventory.”

GM ended March with inventory of about 574,000 vehicles, 57,000 more than a month earlier, according to a statement released today. The automaker’s increased sales of the Chevrolet Cruze helped double GM’s share in the compact-car segment to more than 11 percent in the first quarter, from 5.4 percent in the same period a year earlier.

Small-Car ‘Headwind’

GM has a 73-day supply of the Cruze, said Alan Batey, vice president of Chevrolet sales, on the conference call today.

Higher demand for small cars such as Ford’s Fiesta and Focus “pinched” inventories, Pipas said today. The Fiesta has about a 40-day supply, from 60 days at the beginning of March, and Focus inventory also declined, he said.

“Most likely, lean small car inventories will be a headwind on the industry’s sales rates as we began this month,” Pipas said.

---With assistance from Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles and Keith Naughton in Dearborn, Michigan. Editor: Donna Alvarado, Romaine Bostick

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