March Auto Sales Seen Highest Since August 2007

TheStreet.com

DETROIT (TheStreet) -- U.S. auto sales in March apparently have reached their highest absolute level in four-and-a-half years, according to estimates.

March sales should reach 1.4 million units, the most since August 2007, according to estimates by both TrueCar.com and Kelly Blue Book. Automakers will report March sales on April 2.

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TrueCar said that Hyundai, Nissan and Volkswagen should have their highest monthly U.S. unit sales ever and all eight major automakers will show gains, with overall sales up 14% from March 2011. Gains will range from 33% at Volkswagen to 1% at Ford F , while GM GM gained 21%, the firm estimated. Only at Nissan and VW did incentives rise.

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Many automakers will report "some of the highest unit sales in years," said TrueCar analyst Jesse Toprak, in a prepared statement. He said he was increasing his full-year sales forecast to 14.5 million units from 14 million units. March is typically a very strong month for auto sales.

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In particular, Toyota TM and Honda HMC "have bounced back" from their inventory problems, Kelley Blue Book said. Year to date, their shares are up 22% and 19%, respectively, while Ford is up 11% and GM has gained 17%.

Retail sales, a particularly accurate segment indicator of consumer sentiment, rose 14.3% from March 2011 and 26.5% from February 2012, TrueCar said, while the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate should be 14.5 million, up from 13.1 million in March 2011 but down from 15.1 million in February 2012.

"Although we anticipate strong sales in March, it will fall short of the 15.1 million SAAR posted last month," said Alec Gutierrez, Kelley Blue Book analyst, in a prepared statement. "Sales in February were aided by unseasonably warm weather across the United States and an additional selling day due to the Leap Year, triggering a strong seasonally adjusted sales rate that will not likely repeat this year."

Gutierrez said that "if conditions remain steady, the industry can expect to see continued strength in sales for the months ahead," but rising fuel prices could slow momentum. He said March subcompact sales will be strong, reflecting higher fuel costs, with beneficiaries including new introductions of the Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Sonic.

CLSA analyst Emmanuel Rosner said auto suppliers, as well as automakers, should benefit from continuing sales gain.

"Previous cycles suggest that the sector should see additional rerating as SAAR improves and interest rates remain low," he said in a recent report.

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Rosner's top picks are Dana DAN , "for its underrated operational transformation and BRIC exposure," and BorgWarner BWA "for adoption of its fuel-efficiency-enhancing products." Dana is up 23% year to date, while BorgWarner is up 28%.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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