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Auto sales up, but fiscal cliff a concern

Keywords: Tags  Automotive sales, General Motors, Kurt McNeil, Ford Motor, Erich Merkle, Jenny Lin, Ken Czubay, Toyota Motor Sales USA Bill Fay

CHICAGO — The top seven automakers sold 955,717 vehicles in the United States in November, up 3.3 percent from 925,028 the previous month and a 12.7-percent improvement over 848,123 in November last year, according to an AMM analysis.

Year-to-date sales of nearly 11.27 million vehicles were 13.5 percent ahead of almost 9.93 million in the first 11 months of 2011.

Hurricane Sandy spurred some additional sales.

"The East Coast’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy helped drive the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate materially higher, perhaps as much as 0.4 points," Kurt McNeil, U.S. vice president of sales operations at Detroit-based General Motors Co., said. "It benefited our competitors more than GM, given market share patterns," but as 2012 draws to a close "it’s clear the industry will come in at the high end of our full-year forecast, which is for sales of 14 million to 14.5 million."

Alan Batey, GM’s global chief marketing officer, said that with a five-weekend month, December should be strong for auto sales.

But the number of replacement vehicles needed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy may be at the low end of published estimates of 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles. "We’ll start to see (related sales) in a December-to-February window, and we will see a positive uptick throughout 2013," McNeil said.

Demand stemming from Hurricane Sandy accounted for an additional 20,000 to 30,000 vehicle sales industrywide in November, Ford Motor Co. U.S. sales analyst Erich Merkle said, and similar replacement sales will "take us into the first half of next year."

"Replacement of vehicles damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy is partially responsible for strong sales," said Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of Torrance, Calif.-based Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

Fiscal cliff wrangling between Congress and the White House has led automakers to hold off on 2013 forecasts.

McNeil said GM won’t offer a formal 2013 sales forecast until Congress agrees on a plan to resolve the fiscal cliff issue and reduce long-term federal budget deficits.

The fiscal crisis "is the biggest uncertainty out there," said Jenny Lin, senior U.S. economist with Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford. "The situation remains very fluid."

The fiscal cliff is "on the front page of every newspaper," Ford U.S. sales vice president Ken Czubay acknowledged, "but (considering) the aging of the fleet, the value proposition, higher fuel efficiency and low interest rates," Ford’s showroom surveys "show that business is still going to be quite good."

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