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August US auto sales down; carmakers say industry has peaked

New vehicles sit at a General Motors dealership
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images
New vehicles sit at a General Motors dealership

U.S. auto sales fell in August, and some major automakers said on Thursday a long-expected sales decline has begun or, at best, industry sales have hit a plateau, which may spark a shift to juicer customer incentives, slowed production or more fleet sales.

The biggest U.S. automakers, General Motors and Ford Motor, reported declining sales after a surprisingly strong July.

GM said August U.S. sales would be 17.2 million vehicles on a seasonally adjusted annualized rate, suggesting a fall of about 3 percent from a year earlier, but some analysts said the drop will be more than 5 percent.

Ford Chief Economist Bryan Bezold said sales have hit a plateau after steadily rising following the 2008-2009 recession. The auto industry outperformed the overall U.S. economy in those years largely due to pent-up demand that has now played out, he said.

Wall Street has pressured automaker shares all year as expectations of falling sales were widely expected at some point this year.

GM shares were little changed while Ford was off 1.2 percent at midday.

In late July, Ford was the first major automaker to confirm the lofty sales gains achieved since 2010 were at an end, even though they are still about 65 percent higher than the lowest sales year in 2009.

Mark LaNeve, Ford's U.S. sales chief, said on Thursday the company will ring up fewer sales in 2017 than this year. Results in 2016 are expected to fall short of last year's record high sales of 17.47 million vehicles, according to Autodata.

GM on Thursday forecast 2016 sales at 17.3 million vehicles.

For August, GM's U.S. sales fell 5.2 percent, while Ford's fell 8.4 percent. Ford said its U.S. inventory was at 81 days of supply versus 61 days a year earlier, suggesting Ford may have to cut production, increase incentives, or increase fleet sales.

Both companies' results were in line with expectations after the surprisingly strong July.

The drop in industry sales came as incentives dropped 2.2 percent from July, industry analyst TrueCar said.

"Now the automakers' focus will shift from simple growth to market share and managing inventories," said analyst Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book. "The use of incentives and fleet sales as a counter to plateauing retail sales will be the statistics to watch going forward."

Ford's LaNeve said the company will manage supply with demand, but when asked if production will be slowed or plants shut down to accomplish that goal, he declined to say.

While GM said this year's sales will not top results of 2015, the slide was moderate, and results remained sharply above those in the 2008-2009 recession and in the years immediately after.

"All the economic factors continue to point toward a strong second half of the year and another potential record year for the industry," said Mustafa Mohatarem, GM's chief economist.

Sales of the No. 1 selling model in the United States, the Ford F-Series pickup truck, fell 6 percent, but Ford said retail sales for the trucks were robust.

Retail sales cover individuals and are generally more lucrative than volume fleet sales to rental car agencies, businesses and government. Rental car sales are particularly low-profit.

GM has boasted all year that it has significantly cut its sales to rental agencies. However, GM's retail sales fell about 5 percent, in line with its wider total sales decline.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' sales were up 3 percent versus a year ago. Earlier this year, FCA restated August 2015 sales downward by about 10,800 vehicles. In July, the automaker said it revised more than five years of monthly U.S. vehicle sales figures amid a U.S. investigation into claims of inflated figures.

Toyota Motor sales fell 5 percent while Nissan Motor Co was off 6.5 percent.

Honda Motor was down 3.8 percent as Accord sales tumbled 26 percent. Honda-brand car sales fell 10 percent while truck and SUV sales rose 4.5 percent.