Vehicle sales paint tough economic picture

Sales of heavy-duty vehicles, cars and light trucks are down almost across the board in the first quarter of this year, though analysts are predicting a rebound by the end of 2002. First-quarter 2002 sales of cars and light trucks fell 4.5% compared to the same period in 2001, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA). However, NADA said there has been a surge in sales of crossover utility vehicles (CUVs) – hybrids of sport-utility vehicles and traditional cars – which went up 16% over the first quarter of last year and 24% over March 2001 sales numbers. Positive signs of a gradually recovering economy bode well for new-car and light-truck sales through the balance of 2002, according to NADA chief economist Paul Taylor. He predicts car and light-truck sales will top 16 million units by the end of the year. However, steadily rising fuel prices – in part related to ongoing hostilities in the Middle East – may impact overall sales. "Gasoline prices have already risen 23%, and may be up by 30% in the coming months," said Taylor. The sales picture for new trucks in the United States isn't as rosy. Ward's Communications reports that sales have dropped steeply for many truck classes in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2001. Sales of Class 1 trucks dropped 3.6% to 1.17-million units in the first three months of 2002. Sales of Class 2 trucks stayed relatively flat, falling just 0.1% to 580,917 units. Sales of Class 4 trucks dropped the most, by 34.4%, to 38,428 units, with Class 5 truck sales slipping 14.6% to 5,298 units. Class 6 truck sales dropped 20.5% to 8,388 units, Class 7 truck sales fell 26% to 18,160 units and Class 8 truck sales slipped 18.9% to 28,020. Only sales of Class 3 trucks showed an improvement – a whopping 68.8% increase to 38,428 units sold in the first three months of 2002 as compared to the same period last year. The National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA) believes the truck and transportation equipment manufacturing industries' rate of growth appears to have bottomed out at the end of 2001. It expects sales of all classes of trucks to follow the increases shown by Class 3 vehicles some time in the second quarter of 2002. In terms of the larger economic picture, NTEA said the good news is that U.S. gross domestic product is growing again. However, the bad news is that the Japanese and European economies are still in recession or are growing very slowly. As those foreign economies are heavily integrated with the U.S. economy, it will be more difficult for the U.S. economy to really take off until Japan and Europe recover more. NTEA added that it believes interest rates have fallen as far as they are going to in the U.S., meaning that there will be no more monetary stimulus for a while.

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