As prime-risk credit came back, U.S. light-vehicle sales gained. In 2010, sales rose to 11.6 million, up 11 percent from 2009.
Jackson blamed much of the sales collapse two years ago on the lack of credit. Conversely, he said, he was confident at the time that when credit came back, auto sales would, too.
"We had higher demand and higher traffic than we had credit for our customers," he said. "It was fairly easy to forecast an improvement in 2010 and 2011."
Assuming subprime credit and leasing continue to rebound this year, Jackson said at the forum that he expects U.S. light-vehicle sales of around 12.8 million this year; yesterday, Jackson cut that forecast to the mid-12 million range because of disruptions from last month's earthquake in Japan.
Working against auto sales going even higher are rising gasoline prices, several speakers at the forum said.
Automakers also are trying to avoid a return to easy credit, which propelled sales past 17 million in 2000 and 2001 and to just shy of 17 million in 2005.
That year, GM's Employee Pricing program set off a spike in sales across the board at the expense of profits. High incentives and easy credit continued through 2006 and 2007, as the Detroit 3 tried to move the metal.
Credit is "never going to go back to where we were a couple of years ago," Magliano said. "That was just bad business." He said IHS Automotive doesn't expect sales to hit 17 million until 2015 or 16.
Today, the Detroit 3 say they've learned their lesson. At the forum, GM CEO Dan Akerson was unsparing in his criticism of GM's former practice of pushing cars and trucks into the market instead of producing vehicles to meet the pull of consumer demand. "We essentially told the market what they needed," he said.
Jackson sounded just a tiny bit nostalgic for the easy credit that went hand-in-hand with the "push" production system.
"Credit will never be what it was in '06 and '07," he said. "Maybe that's healthier for the long term, and maybe that's something we'll just have to accept."