DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- U.S. automobile sales this year may rise faster than analysts had earlier anticipated as the improving job market prevents higher gasoline prices and supply disruptions in Japan from derailing the industry's recovery.
Total sales of cars and light trucks may rise to 13 million this year, the average of 18 analysts' estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The average estimate was 12.9 million in a Bloomberg survey of 17 analysts in January. Light-vehicle sales last year rose to 11.6 million from a 27-year low in 2009.
Auto sales ran at seasonally adjusted annual rate of 13.1 million in the first quarter, the fastest pace since the quarter ending June 2008, according to Autodata Corp. Demand held up while gasoline prices rose to the highest in more than two years and Japan's earthquake disrupted production and tightened inventories of some models.
The U.S. economy added jobs for six consecutive months through March, with payrolls rising by 478,000 in the first quarter, and the unemployment rate fell to a two-year low of 8.8 percent, according to U.S. Labor Department figures. Seven analysts raised their estimates for full-year auto sales since the beginning of the year.
IHS Automotive lowered its estimate to 12.9 million vehicles, from as high as 13.3 million in February, citing higher oil prices and disruptions following Japan's earthquake.
Oil prices, Japan
The higher cost of oil accounts for a 150,000-vehicle reduction in IHS's estimate, and Japan-related production losses account for the remainder, said George Magliano, a New York- based senior economist for the researcher.
"We're a little more optimistic on the job market, which we think has finally turned," Magliano said in a telephone interview. "Credit has begun to loosen up a bit more. That made us feel better about where the year was going. Now, we've got two things working against us."
U.S. consumer borrowing rose for a fifth straight month in February on an increase in non-revolving credit, which includes borrowing for autos, the Federal Reserve reported April 7. Lenders began expanding credit to new-car buyers last year, according to Experian Automotive, which tracks auto-lending data. Buyers with nonprime or weaker credit scores accounted for 19.8 percent of the new-vehicle financing market in the fourth quarter, up from 16.8 percent a year earlier, Experian said.
"The lenders are coming to the consumers, and the consumers are doing everything they can to improve their standing so they can hopefully meet in the middle," said Dan Montague, an analyst at the Autofacts forecasting unit of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, which raised its estimate for full- year deliveries to 13 million from 12.5 million.
Ford Motor Co. closed its truck plant in Louisville, Kentucky, last week because of a Japan-related parts shortage. The factory makes F-Series pickups and the Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition SUVs.
General Motors Co. also reported production disruptions the week of March 21 at its pickup plant in Shreveport, La., and factories in Zaragoza, Spain, and Eisenach, Germany.
'Temporary' Japan impact
Toyota Motor Corp. has said it lost 140,000 units of production from March 14 to March 26, citing a shortage of electronic parts, rubber and plastics. The company said today it may lose output of 35,000 vehicles at its North American factories through April 25. A shortage of vehicles for Japanese automakers including Toyota, Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. will be a temporary headwind, said Efraim Levy, an analyst with Standard & Poor's Equity Research, which kept its 13 million 2011 sales estimate.
"There will be some makeup of those sales in the second half of the year, but in general consumers will mostly opt to find an alternative vehicle and purchase now, rather than wait," said Levy. "That's a potential benefit to U.S. and Korean automakers and a minor impact on overall sales for the year."
GM repeated this month its forecast that sales this year may be as much as 13.5 million when including medium- and heavy- duty trucks. A "significant slowdown" as a result of the Japan earthquake is unlikely, said Don Johnson, GM's vice president of U.S. sales, said on a conference call.
"The biggest problem I have is not having enough cars, and that's about the best problem to have," said Robert Morris, president of a Cadillac, Buick and GMC dealership in North Olmsted, Ohio, near Cleveland. "People can only stay down for so long before they just kind of snap themselves out of it. The pent-up demand is breaking loose."
The sales estimates compiled by Bloomberg range from as high as 14 million predicted by Morgan Stanley to 12.6 million projected by AutoPacific Inc. More of the labor force is settling for part-time work, which is skewing a recovery in the job market, said Ed Kim, an analyst at AutoPacific in Tustin, Calif.
"Part-time work generally doesn't cut it as far as having the income necessary to buy a new vehicle," said Kim, who raised his estimate to 12.6 million vehicles from 12.4 million at the beginning of the year. "I don't think that necessarily translates into a significantly higher number of consumers who can buy a new vehicle now."
Annual U.S. deliveries were 16.8 million on average from 2000 to 2007, according to Autodata.