US auto sales fell 37 percent last month, a smaller-than-expected drop that encouraged hope the world’s largest car market is nearing a bottom after a free fall that has pulled the industry into a deepening crisis.
General Motors Corp (GM), which has until June to complete a new restructuring under federal oversight that could push it into bankruptcy, said its sales fell 45 percent, the largest decline of any of the major automakers.
Industry-wide sales dropped for the 17th consecutive month, but were up from February with the help of record discounts and higher sales to fleet operators, such as government agencies.
Auto sales typically account for as much as a fifth of overall US retail sales and industry executives held out hope that the market would hit bottom over the next quarter or so.
“I think we’re seeing maybe the first signs of a brightening in the outlook for the auto industry in March,” GM chief sales analyst Mike DiGiovanni said on a conference call.
Sales for Ford Motor Co, the only US automaker operating without government aid, dropped 41 percent.
The major Japanese automakers and Chrysler LLC posted US sales declines in a narrow range between 36 percent and 39 percent.
Overall sales came in at a rate of almost 9.9 million vehicles on the annualized rate tracked by analysts, down sharply from the average near 16 million over the past decade.
“We believe we may be at or near the trough of the industry’s year-to-year comparisons, but do not see an uptick in industry demand before [the fourth quarter] at the earliest,” said Efraim Levy, an equity analyst with Standard & Poor’s.