What: January U.S. auto sales
When: Tuesday, Feb. 1
Consensus forecast: Annual sales rate of 12.5 mln
By Kevin Krolicki and Bernie Woodall
DETROIT, Jan 31 (Reuters) - U.S. auto sales for January are expected to be up 15 percent or more despite the disruption of winter storms during the month, a result that would show the momentum of a sales recovery now a year-and-a-half old.
But as they prepared to close the books on the month's crucial final weekend, both Ford Motor Co (F.N) and Chrysler Group LLC suggested industry-wide sales could fall short of the most bullish forecasts.
U.S. auto sales represent one of the first snapshots of consumer demand. A result at the low end of expectations could raise new caution at a time when some analysts have tamped down bullish expectations for the speed of the earnings growth for U.S. automakers and suppliers in 2011.
Automakers are set to report January U.S. auto sales on Tuesday.
Economists surveyed by Reuters forecast sales for the month of about 12.5 million vehicles on the annualized and seasonally adjusted basis tracked by the industry. [ID:nLDE70K1CG]
That would be slightly higher than the 12.4 million sales rate that the industry averaged in the fourth quarter. It would also represent the best January sales result since 2008.
Of the 14 analysts surveyed by Reuters, forecasts ranged from a low of 12.1 million to a high of 13 million.
Chris Hopson, an analyst with IHS Automotive, said he expected a sales rate near 12.4 million which he said would show a "measured momentum" in the industry's recovery as auto financing terms ease up for consumers.
"Overall credit availability will help out and, hopefully, maintain some of this move forward we have seen in the sales rate," Hopson said.
Another positive note, said analysts, is that the retail share of overall sales was seen rising in January, reflecting an extension of the slow recovery in consumer spending that began in 2010.
In early 2010, major automakers had relied more heavily on the less-profitable fleet sales to rental car operators, businesses and government agencies.
But on Monday Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said that industry-wide sales had fallen off in the final weeks of the month, which typically account for the bulk of sales.
"We've seen a softening of the U.S. market in the last couple of weeks," Marchionne told reporters on a conference call to discuss Chrysler's fourth-quarter results. [ID:nN31199673]
Marchionne forecast a sales rate of near 12.4 million to 12.5 million vehicles for the month. Chrysler is 25 percent owned by Italy's Fiat SpA. FIA.MI
Ford also said industry-wide sales would point toward a continued, gradual recovery but offered up an estimate for the tally that fell short of the most optimistic projections.
"It's probably too much to expect that sales go up and up and up without interruption," Ford's chief sales analyst, George Pipas, told reporters. "These things just don't happen."
Pipas said Ford expected industry-wide sales for the month would be near 800,000, up from 700,000 a year earlier,
That gain would translate into an annualized sales rate near 12.3 million vehicles, down from 12.6 million in December.
Winter storms pummeled much of the United States in January, snarling showroom traffic in parts of the country that are normally outside the Snowbelt.
That included a particularly strong winter storm in the middle of January that caused six states to declare states of emergency, shut interstate highways around Atlanta and dropped heavy snow in parts of Texas and the Carolinas.
"The weather was a new factor for us but our sales were up," said Mark Whibbs, a Buick and GMC dealer in Pensacola, Florida.
In January 2010, Toyota had been rocked by a massive recall and a sales shutdown on eight of its 19 U.S. models due to faulty accelerator pedals.
Toyota has forecast a double-digit percentage sales gain in 2011 sales, outpacing the industry.
TrueCar.com, one of the few industry-tracking firms to offer a company-specific sales forecast, projected a 29 percent sales gain for Toyota in January, the largest rise for any of the major automakers. (Reporting by Kevin Krolicki and Bernie Woodall, editing by Matthew Lewis