Did I hear somebody say '17 million'?

We have been hearing these dour words so often for the past three years that we assumed they were unchallengeable: It's going to be a long, long time before the industry ever sees a 17 million-unit sales year again.

And yet…

How does 2015 sound?

That's the current sales forecast put forth this week in New York by the international forecasting firm IHS Global Insight. They prophesy 16.5 million auto sales in 2014 -- which should be good enough for most people -- and then a big 17 million in 2015.

It's the return of the good old days.

We all thought we knew perfectly well that the naughty business habits that made new-vehicles sales soar so high in the previous decade would never align again -- the lax consumer financing habits, the over-valued home loans and ill-advised cash-outs by homeowners, the desperate incentivizing by automakers.

And yet it could be just 48 months away.

In 2009, the industry bottomed out at 10.4 million sales -- a fall from 17.11 million in the hedonistic days of 2001. Seventeen million minus 10.4 million equaled about 20 auto factories too many for the market. Some closed. Their workers scattered. Businesses disappeared. Suppliers evaporated. Retail stores went under.

So who in the world will manufacture all those new vehicles in 2015?

As all economists do, IHS caveats its forecast with appropriate footnotes. If gas prices climb too high, the 17-million deal is off. If the Japanese crisis drags on, the numbers will be revised down. If this happens, if that happens, etc., etc.


They said what they said: 17 million. 2015.

You've been warned.

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