US: Motor Vehicle Sales

February 1, 2017 06:00 CST

Consensus Consensus Range Actual Previous
Total Vehicle Sales 17.7M 17.0M to 18.2M 17.6M 18.4M
Domestic Vehicle Sales 13.9M 14.6M

Consumer spending looks to start off 2017 on the defensive based on a major slowing in vehicle sales, to a 17.6 million annualized unit pace and far below December's 18.4 million rate. Sales of North American-made vehicles slowed to a 13.9 million rate from December's 14.6 million.

January's sales aren't that bad and actually match 2016's monthly average. But it's the comparison with the unusual strength of December that unfortunately points to unusual weakness for January's headline retail sales.

Market Consensus Before Announcement
Unit vehicle sales correctly foreshadowed what was a swing higher for the motor vehicle component of the December retail sales report and before that a swing lower in November. December unit sales rose sharply to a cycle best 18.4 million annualized rate. Econoday forecasters are looking for give back in January with the consensus at 17.7 million. Vehicle sales were solid throughout 2016 but still down from 2015's exceptionally strong rates.

Unit sales of motor vehicles include domestic sales and foreign sales, otherwise referred to as imports. Domestics are sales of autos produced in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Imports are U.S. sales of vehicles produced elsewhere. These are for light vehicles which include all passenger cars and light trucks up to 14,000 pounds gross weight (including minivans and sport utility vehicles). Individual manufacturers usually report sales on the first business day of the month. One of the first tabulators of the data is Autodata Corporation. Motor vehicle sales are good indicators of trends in consumer spending and often are considered a leading indicator at business cycle turning points. One should note that manufacturers do not break out vehicle sales to businesses, which are a smaller but still significant percentage of the monthly total.

Since motor vehicle sales are an important element of consumer spending, market players watch this closely to get a handle on the direction of the economy. The pattern of consumption spending is one of the foremost influences on stock and bond markets. Strong economic growth translates to healthy corporate profits and higher stock prices. The bond market focus is on whether economic growth goes overboard and leads to inflation. Ideally, the economy walks that fine line between strong growth and excessive (inflationary) growth. This balance was achieved through much of the nineties. For this reason alone, investors in the stock and bond markets enjoyed huge gains during the bull market of the 1990s.

Retail sales growth did slow down in tandem with the equity market in 2000 and with the 2001 recession. A low interest rate environment through 2006 supported motor vehicle sales. But the credit crunch and recession led to a sharp drop in sales in 2008.

In a more specific sense, auto and truck sales show market conditions for auto makers and the slew of auto-related companies. These figures can influence particular stock prices and provide insight to investment opportunities in this industry. Given that most consumers borrow money to buy cars or trucks, sales also reflect confidence in current and future economic conditions.