Car sales have plunged to near zero in some parts of the U.S., notably Detroit, San Francisco and a few of the other markets with major coronavirus outbreaks, while overall U.S. demand during the first half of the month was off about 55%, according to J.D. Power.
What will happen next is uncertain, but even after the pandemic lockdowns are eased, both in the U.S. and abroad, the outlook for the auto industry is anything but good for the rest of the year, industry analysts broadly agreeing that global light vehicle sales will be down at least 20% or more.
“The unexpected and sudden nature of the impacts of the pandemic are hitting the autos sector hard, with unprecedented levels of uncertainty around prospects for meaningful global recovery,” said Colin Couchman, executive director, global autos demand forecasting at IHS Markit.
The latest studies suggest that global auto sales likely will come in around 70 million for all of 2020, 20 million below last year’s worldwide tally, noted LMC Automotive.
Amidst the gloom, there are some who hope things might not be as bad as first forecast. Power’s data chief Thomas King noted during a media webinar last week that U.S. sales were actually a bit better than the 80% downturn he first forecast for April – though King quickly cautioned the actual 55% decline still meant sales plunged to a level lower than that seen during the worst months of the Great Recession a decade ago.
And Power, like IHS, LMC Automotive and other research firms following the auto industry, does not see the U.S. getting anywhere close to its pre-pandemic trendline for months. King cautioned that the U.S. could end 2020 with sales of just 12.4 million, down from 17.1 million in 2019. If all goes well, however, U.S. sales could come in as high as 14.5 million, forecasts Power.
Automotive analysts are watching what happens on the other side of the Pacific. China appears to be emerging from its own black hole, according to the latest data from the China Association of Automotive Manufacturers. In February, as the country announced a broad lockdown, demand plunged 80%. March saw a slight improvement, though sales in the world’s largest automotive market were still off 45%. And April is trending towards a 15% dip, based on industry numbers there.
For the full year, the overall decline in Chinese vehicle sales may be a reasonably modest 15%, said Michael Dunne, founder of the Asian automotive consulting firm ZoZoGo, but “only if everything goes right and there are no more relapses,” Dunne quickly added.
In Europe, a couple of car plants were fired back up last week with a handful of others coming online this week and more will phase back into operation through May. But how well the market will respond is anything but certain and likely will vary by market, according to analysts.
For its part, IHS expects a 24.9% drop in sales, to 13.6 million units, in Western and Central Europe.
Generally, the post-pandemic recovery is “unlikely to be rapid,” according to a report by LMC Automotive. If anything, analysts warn that there is as much down as upside potential. And IHS said that even its latest numbers “are likely to be revised down.”
A key concern is that the virus could rebound, something already being seen in a few places, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where residents were released from lockdown relatively early.
That’s the heart of the debate in the U.S. where pandemic specialists are calling for caution while the Trump Administration is pushing for rapid action to revive the economy. A test could come soon as several states, such as Georgia, begin relaxing shelter-in-place orders this week.
It’s not just the light vehicle market that likely will get slammed by the coronavirus. IHS foresees a big hit to the global vehicle segment, as well, sales expected to dip 22%, to just 2.6 million, for the year.
There could be some rebound, said Andrej Divis, director of commercial vehicle data & forecasts at IHS Markit, especially with government incentives. But, “we do not see all of the lost volume being made up.”