May 1, 2009 / 6:36 PM / 9 years ago

WRAPUP 2-April U.S. auto sales plunge near 30-year lows

  * US auto sales at lowest levels in nearly 30 years
  * GM, Ford sales both fall more than 30 percent
  * Toyota sales fall 42 pct; Nissan sales fall 38 pct
  * Ford says U.S. economy reaching bottom
  * Shares of GM, Ford end lower on NYSE
 (Recasts, adds results, analyst comments, other details)
 By Ben Klayman
 CHICAGO, May 1 (Reuters) - U.S. auto sales fell 34.4
percent in April as the industry held near the lowest levels in
nearly 30 years and closed out the month with Chrysler LLC
filing for bankruptcy protection.
 The talk of bankruptcy surrounding Chrysler and General
Motors Corp GM.N, which faces similar pressures, only spooked
consumers last month and led to weaker-than-expected industry
results, executives and analysts said.
 "Clearly, the uncertainty, the bankruptcy talk, has really
affected the entire industry," GM chief sales analyst Mike
DiGiovanni said on a conference call, adding retail sales had
hit a wall in the last week of April.
 U.S. auto sales came in at a 9.32 million seasonally
adjusted annual rate in April, according to Autodata Corp, below
the 9.8 million rate that analysts had expected. The annualized
rate of U.S. auto sales is a closely watched indicator of
economic activity.
 That marked the 18th consecutive month of year-over-year
declining sales and a drop from 9.86 million in March.
 However, executives at several automakers also pointed to
signs of stability in the market.
 "While April sales weren't much to call home about, there
are signs that the sales contraction is nearing its end," said
Bob Carter, general manager of Toyota Motor Corp's 7203.T
flagship brand in the United States.
 Others called talk of a recovery wishful thinking.
 "I don't think it's anything that can be characterized as a
recovery until a bit down the road," Frost & Sullivan auto
analyst Stephen Spivey said. "The people I've talked to really
aren't looking for a rebound until next year."
 Chrysler, which shut down production on Friday as it began
the first day of bankruptcy hearings, posted a 48 percent drop
in sales, the largest among the major automakers in the U.S.
market, followed by Toyota and Nissan Motor Co Ltd 7201.T
with declines of 42 and 38 percent, respectively.
 Sales at U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co F.N slid almost 32
percent last month, while sales at GM, which like Chrysler has
been operating under federal supervision, fell 34 percent.
 Honda Motor Co Ltd's 7267.T sales were off 25 percent.
 "Wow, what a month in the last couple of days in the
automobile business," Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of sales
and marketing, said on a conference call. "Clearly, we continue
to operate in a very challenging economic environment."
 Ford officials said the U.S. economy appears to be reaching
a bottom, citing rising consumer confidence [ID:nN01402214].
They expect a recovery in the second half of the year.
 "At this point, grasping at straws, any signs that things
are not getting worse ... is reason to be quite optimistic," analyst Jessica Caldwell said.
 However, the weak demand led Chrysler, owned by Cerberus
Capital Group [CBS.UL], to file for bankruptcy on Thursday and
announce an alliance with Italy's Fiat SpA FIA.MI.
 GM, surviving on $15.4 billion of government loans it
received at the start of the year, faces similar pressures as it
races to win sweeping cost cuts from bondholders and its major
union by a U.S. government-imposed June 1 deadline.
 U.S. auto sales typically account for as much as one-fifth
of all retail sales in the country and represent one of the
first indicators of consumer demand every month. Both GM and
Chrysler have announced plant shutdowns to slash bloated
vehicle inventories. [ID:nN01307551]
 Ford officials said the automaker gained U.S. market share
in April without boosting incentives to draw customers. The
industry overall boosted such spending in April by an average
of $600 per vehicle from last year, it said.
 Ford, which posted a smaller than expected loss of $1.43
billion in the first quarter, is the only U.S. automaker not
operating with emergency U.S. government loans.
 But Ford is restructuring its operations and said last
month it has been in talks with potential buyers for its
Swedish brand Volvo, whose U.S. sales fell almost 37 percent.
 GM said it also gained slightly in market share, while
Toyota officials vowed not to match other automakers' job-loss
protection incentives.
 GM and Ford shares closed off 5.7 and 4.9 percent,
respectively, on Friday on the New York Stock Exchange.
 (Reporting by Ben Klayman and David Bailey, Poornima Gupta and
Soyoung Kim in Detroit, editing by Matthew Lewis)            

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