Feeble? Nah, the market's just sleeping in

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Here we are again, another sales month that's mildly better but not exciting. Forget September's zippy 29 percent rise. A year ago, dealers had nothing left to sell after clunkers. Bottom line, last month was another sub-million unit month.

Looking at the numbers, some see the U.S. market as feeble. Others see it scared and hunkered down.

But if I'm attaching a mood, it's sleepy. Like waking up on a weekend morning. Yesterday was miserable, but now you're warm and comfy and, well, what's the hurry?

No, the market is certainly not strong -- but it doesn't need to be. There's no sense of urgency, and after two frantic years of fighting to survive, folks are content to be still awhile before getting up.

So on the sell side, nobody's pushing. Inventories are lean, in some cases tighter than what dealers want, because automakers are maintaining discipline. Most incentives are lower than last year. Dealers won't play giveaway with anything except factory cash.

On the buy side, consumers are just playing it safe. The so-called rational buyers are the only ones in the market. They're the reason incentives aren't even lower: They will buy, but they really, really want a bribe before they'll sign, and they're willing to wait until one is offered.

Analyst Jesse Toprak of TrueCar.com nailed it earlier today, calling September just another step in a “stable, somewhat painful recovery.”

So what can break this sleepy mood?

“We're still missing a catalyst to boost the selling rate,” Toprak mused. “But this may be a healthier way to recover.”

Just as we eventually shrug off the covers and start our weekend, something eventually will jump-start the auto market.

But for the moment, most folks are savoring a novel idea: “You know, nothing is actively trying to kill me.”

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com.

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