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Alarm Bells Ring In Detroit As Sales Growth Slows

Ford Adds Much Aluminium To Its F-150 Truck.
Mercedes C-Class, BMW 2 Series Unveiled.

The U.S. market has made a remarkable recovery from the depths of the recession, but the pace of recovery will slow in 2014 even as auto sales burst through 16 million.

The fact that there are troubles ahead didn’t feature much as leaders of the big auto makers unveiled exciting new vehicles at the annual Detroit Car Show. Since the depths of the recession, sales have bounded ahead at close to an extra one million vehicles a year. In 2014, the gain will be closer to an extra half million.

Some experts worry that this will be combined with some worrying developments which threaten a return to the dark old days of piling ‘em high and selling ‘em cheap, while pricing will be threatened by the weakening Japanese yen, and over-capacity.

At the show and insulated from such doubts, the launches came thick and fast. Ford, as befits one of the host manufacturers, turned up the volume as it launched its redesigned F-150 pickup truck, now with much aluminium to save weight. Last year F-Series models were Ford’s biggest seller, with 763,403, if you needed reminding just how different the U.S. market is. Important launches from Europe included the new Mercedes C-class and BMW 2 series. Other headline huggers were the new Honda Fit/Jazz, a coupe version of the Cadillac ATS, and a redesigned Chrysler 200. The BMW i3 electric car made its debut in the U.S. If there were any significant new technology developments, car companies were keeping it to themselves.

Most estimates for 2014 U.S. light vehicle sales show a figure well beyond 16 million, compared with 2013’s 15.6 million, which was 7.6 per cent up on 2012.

Expectations raised
Kelley Blue Book of Southern California sees gains of between four and five per cent to 16.3 million. Chicago stock-broker Morningstar contemplates a number lower than 16 million with its forecast of between 15.9 million and 16.2 million. Citi Research raised its expectations to 16.4 million in 2014 and 17 million in 2015.

Sales have recovered strongly from the low of 10.4 million in 2009.

But Morgan Stanley worried about the health of the market, saying sales were stalling, production capacity was zooming, and coupled with plentiful credit, this was a recipe for an outbreak of dangerous discounting.

“Much of the low hanging fruit has been picked and the incremental customer is getting harder and harder to come by. Faced with a stalling (annual sales rate) growing production capacity, aggressive credit availability, and the Japanese yen at 105, we believe the stage is set for new vehicle pricing to normalize down from the very high levels we have seen since the downturn,” Morgan Stanley said in a report.

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