TOKYO - Japan's new-vehicle sales fell again in March to close out the fiscal year with a 12th consecutive month of lower sales. Forecasters see more of the same this year.
March sales slid 20.3 percent to 849,309 units, with every category lower: passenger cars, imports, light trucks, buses, mini vehicles, and medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
March is supposed to be a strong sales month. Buyers usually spend the last of their fiscal-year budgets and carmakers offer tempting deals to boost volumes and revenue before closing the year's books.
Not this year, though.
The market remained sluggish as Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's government dithers over how to stimulate the economy without losing face by backtracking on a pledge to cut Japan's government budget deficit.
'The Japanese consumer is on strike,' said James Abegglen, head of Tokyo-based consultants Asia Advisory Services Inc.
'She sees people going bankrupt, politicians who can't be trusted, and she has closed her purse. Run the car another year, run the TV another year. How do you turn that mindset around? I don't know.'
Late last week, Hashimoto unveiled plans for a much-anticipated stimulus package pegged at ¥10 trillion, or $75 billion at current exchange rates, including about $30 billion in temporary income-tax cuts spread over two years. Some members of his party also have hinted at a European-style scrappage allowance for cars over 10 years old.
It remains unclear, though, whether any of those measures will be able to pull Japan out of its hole, or whether they will just suffice to keep the economy from sinking further.
A widely followed Bank of Japan business-confidence survey released in early April showed pessimism across the board among large and small companies, manufacturers, service concerns and even exporters.
The gloomiest reading in four years, it reinforced the view of some economists that Japan is headed for its worst economic showing since the first oil crisis nearly a quarter of a century ago.
The economic malaise was reflected in particularly poor sales of medium- and heavy-duty trucks in March. Their sales tumbled 41.8 percent to 17,509 units. Sales of minivehicles, those with engines under 660 cc, fell 18.8 percent to 190,312.
Import sales were again dragged down by collapsing sales of Japanese cars built outside Japan. Those so-called reimports plummeted 59.1 percent in March to 3,413.
But the import segment overall slid 34.6 percent in March from a year earlier to 37,845 units as every major importer reported sharply lower sales. Volkswagen/Audi was off 27 percent; Mercedes, 24.4 percent; and BMW/Rover, 41 percent. GM was off 34.9 percent, although sales of its North American vehicles edged higher. Ford sales fell 50 percent and Chrysler, 43.5 percent.
For the fiscal year ended March 31, Honda Motor Co. was the clear winner among domestic makers. It raised its market share by 1.5 percentage points to 12.2 percent.
Minivehicle specialists Suzuki Motor Corp. and Daihatsu Motor Co. also gained market share. Sales of less-expensive minivehicles were down, but not as much as the overall market.
On the other hand, Toyota Motor Corp.'s share of overall market, including minis, which it does not sell, fell 0.7 point to 29.7 percent. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. dropped 0.6 point of share, to 10 percent.