DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- U.S. auto sales probably ran at the slowest pace of the year in May, a pause in demand before lower gas prices and rebounding production in Japan fuels the most annual purchases since 2008.
May light-vehicle deliveries, to be released tomorrow, may have run at a 12.1 million seasonally adjusted annual rate, the average estimate of 11 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. The pace exceeded 13 million each of the last three months and was 12.6 million in January, according to researcher Autodata Corp.
Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. are speeding returns to normal production after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami idled factories and created shortages of parts. The slowdown in May sales came about because limited supply of fuel-efficient cars like Toyota's Prius lifted prices and curbed purchases.
"Consumers were being told so dramatically after Japan that there's going to be a shortage of cars, but this is going to be a temporary situation and so many of them will just wait," said Alan Baum, principal of industry consultant Baum & Associates, who predicts 13 million auto sales in the U.S. for 2011.
"To the extent May is a reasonably poor month, I'm not going to get carried away and say that's going to transcend through the rest of the year." The slowdown in May sales came about because of limited supply of fuel-efficient car like Toyota's Prius lifted prices and delayed purchases.
U.S. sales of cars and light trucks may rise to 13 million this year, the average of 16 analysts' estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That would be the most since 13.2 million in 2008.
Average U.S. gasoline prices dropped for 14 straight days since May 11 to $3.80 a gallon for regular unleaded, according to AAA. Prices earlier in May were at the highest level since 2008, reducing demand as the country's vacation season started.
The earthquake in Japan may result in 3 million to 3.5 million units of global production that will be lost or deferred into next year, according to researcher IHS Automotive. Worldwide light-vehicle production may rise to 73.7 million units this year from 71.9 million in 2010, according to IHS.
Toyota, which built 45 percent of its cars in Japan last year, may lead declines among major automakers with a 27 percent drop in May deliveries, the average of three estimates. Honda Motor Co., the second-largest Japanese automaker by U.S. sales, may say sales fell 25 percent, the average of three estimates. Nissan Motor Co. deliveries may decrease 7.3 percent, the average of three estimates.
"Predominantly this is a supply issue," George Magliano, a New York-based senior economist for IHS Automotive, said in a telephone interview. "The auto market was developing considerable momentum coming into this month before issues related to Japan."
Automakers benefiting from their Japan-based rivals' supply constraints may be led by Hyundai Motor Co. and affiliate Kia Motors Corp. Their combined U.S. sales may pass Toyota for the first time, according to Santa Monica, Calif.-based TrueCar.com. Deliveries for Hyundai and Kia may surge 43 percent in May to 115,434, behind only General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., according to the auto pricing Web site.
Sales for Ford, the second-largest U.S. automaker, may have dropped 0.5 percent, the average estimate of five analysts. Ford raised its vehicle prices a third time this year by an average of $124, or 0.4 percent per vehicle this month, said Todd Nissen, a spokesman.
Higher prices and smaller discounts may result in Ford getting buyers to pay as much as $1,500 more per vehicle, Rod Lache, an analyst for Deutsche Bank AG, said in a May 20 research note.
GM deliveries may rise 1.5 percent, the average of three estimates. There are fewer estimates for GM sales this month because some analysts are prevented from publishing research after a lockup expired on the U.S. Treasury Department's ability to sell more of its shares.
Chrysler, which repaid $7.6 billion in U.S. and Canadian government loans this past month, may say sales increased 9.5 percent, the average of five estimates.
GM, the largest U.S. automaker, is struggling to sell down truck inventory that climbed to more than 111 days of supply at the end of April because its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra models are competing against recently updated Ford pickups, Baum said.
"GM has a long-term problem until they're able to update those vehicles, because right now the Ford product is so much more attractive," said Baum. "For now, GM has to respond with incentives."
While total sales may have dropped, Ford's deliveries per selling day may have increased from May 2010. Barclays Capital estimates Ford daily sales rate, excluding year-earlier purchases of its Volvo brand, may rise 10 percent, while Credit Suisse Group AG predicts a 16 percent gain on that basis.
GM this month offered rebates of as much as $4,505 as well as interest-free financing for as long as 60 months on the Silverado and Sierra, while offering no rebates on cars such as its Chevrolet Cruze or Buick LaCrosse, according to AIS Rebates, a Michigan-based provider of incentive data.
Average prices for the industry may increase by about $800 from April, led by a sequential gain of about $1,500 by Japan-based automakers, Himanshu Patel, an analyst for JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote in a May 24 research note.