Will we set a sales record? (Do we want to?)

We’re 10 months into the best U.S. auto sales year.

I’m calling it early. After a terrific October, I think 2015 light-vehicle volume will top the previous peak in 2000 of 17,395,142 sales.

Wait. Don’t pop that cork just yet.

The industry hasn’t yet set a record. And it may not want to this year.

This year’s sales through 10 months are 407,000 units behind the 2000 pace, but trending upward, while the final two months of 2000 drooped. The sales record is there if automakers want to grab it.

But the cost might be high.

Maybe 2015 sets a record but pulls forward enough volume from 2016 to turn it into a down year, with volume ever so slightly below 2015.

The big question remains: When is the peak of this auto sales cycle?

We’ve had a remarkably long expansion phase. We’re completing the sixth year of U.S. sales growth, which will be the longest such string since the 1920s. Yes, since cars had running boards.

Do rising sales really matter? Higher volumes certainly bring economies of scale in production and development costs. But sales are just a barometer for the important stuff. As sales sag, marketing and manufacturing costs usually rise, and margins shrink.

So the industry tracks sales forecasts.

And those are getting more cautious. At the start of the year, most forecasters expected growth, but just a little over the 16.5 million units of 2014. Since a snowy start, 2015 has been mostly a pleasant surprise.

The 2015 forecasts I’ve seen have been revised upward since January. Most, but not all, call for 2016 to be slightly higher than 2015, up maybe 100,000 or 200,000 units. IHS Automotive is more upbeat than most, expecting growth to extend into 2017

But the rise in incentive spending in October is making Larry Dominique, president of ALG and executive vice president of TrueCar, rethink expectations.

Last month, TrueCar revised its 2015 forecast to 17.4 million from 17.2 million. It hasn’t issued its 2016 forecast yet but Dominique said a month ago he was leaning toward slight growth next year.

Today, noting a 14 percent jump in industry incentive spending in October, he expects that “November and December incentives will have to be robust to keep momentum.”

And he wonders if free-spending spiffs will pull forward enough sales to make the market peak happen this year instead of in 2016.

He cited prospects for higher interest rates on auto loans and more consumers opting for longer-term loans and leases. But his biggest concern about 2016 is mounting used-vehicle supplies.

“By mid-2016, we estimate the supply of used vehicles will outstrip demand,” Dominique said.

None of this portends a calamity. Right now, the post-peak future, whenever it may come, looks more likely to be closer to the 2001-2007 plateau of 16 million-sales years than the 2008-2009 plunge.

But until auto sales peak, it’s time for the industry to make the most of it.

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com -- Follow Jesse on Twitter: https://twitter.com/spartyjesse

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