Spring came early this year. So has the blossoming of auto sales.
After three years of slow, reluctant, sometimes grindingly grudging growth, auto sales are finally flowing swiftly.
Since the bottom of last year's post-quake minislump, in August, the seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales jumped to 15.1 million last month, a 3 million bump.
Of course, by now, we're suspicious of good news. After all the false starts on this recovery, we're inclined to poke this surge with a stick before embracing it.
Yeah? (poke) Really? (poke, poke) Well, maybe.
But so far, this sales surge is working on an eighth straight solid month, with most forecasters betting March sales will be at a 14.5 million annual rate or higher, which would be under February's SAAR, but higher than any other month in four years.
And here are three other encouraging factoids:
1. Dealers I talk to are, frankly, kinda giddy. Several say they're headed toward their best-ever March, and a couple of them expect their best-ever any month.
In Amarillo, Texas, sales this year are up more than a third, and traffic even more at Street Toyota. General Manager Mike Good says he's seeing "want" buyers again among the "need" buyers. "If they're in a dealership on a February Saturday, that says they want," he said. "They're turning cabin fever into car shopping."
Indiana dealer group CEO Bob Rohrman says it's his best March. He left an after-hours voice mail apologizing for a late callback, "but I was busy selling cars. Woo-hoo!"
2. Analysts are revising annual sales forecasts upward -- again. In January and February, many analysts raised the forecasts they had made in December, mainly by 100,000 or 200,000. But today, two bumped theirs again, and by a lot more: Jesse Toprak of TrueCar.com up a half million to 14.5 million and Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley up 800,000 to 14.8 million.
3. Fears are fading. Remember the night-frights everybody worried about last summer, last fall, even this winter: that spiking fuel prices or the European debt crisis would devastate U.S. auto sales and push us back into a recession?
They didn't disappear, but these days U.S. consumers aren't as spooked. And analysts believe fuel prices are already at or near the peak, and are poised to soften, and that Europe has likely defused the debt crisis, at least for now.
"They're becoming less and less of an issue," says analyst George Magliano of IHS Automotive. "We're not out of the woods yet, but they look more like a drag on growth than a danger to the [auto sales] recovery."
Like warm spring weather, there's always the risk of frost in an auto recovery. But Bob Rohrman's enthusiasm is a welcome sound. I'm going to think of him as akin to seeing my first robin of spring, a sure sign of better things to come.
Thanks, Bob. My first "woo-hoo" of the recovery.