Vehicle sales may be holding steady this month, but the outlook beyond that is worsening rapidly.
Automakers, dealers and analysts are slashing forecasts for the year -- and even for 2012 and 2013. This month half a dozen analysts trimmed 2011 forecasts for light-vehicle sales by 200,000 units or more, to below 13 million.
Others have left forecasts unchanged at around 13 million or slightly more, but have begun using qualifying terms such as "downward bias" and "uncertainty."
The causes: The widely expected second-half bounce as quake-hit inventories recover isn't happening. And car shoppers are spooked by the August stock market drop and renewed talk of a recession.
"Fear increases faster than trust," said Adam Jonas, the top auto analyst at Morgan Stanley.
Earlier this month, General Motors CEO Dan Akerson stuck with a full-year forecast of 13 million, but cautioned: "There's a lot of turmoil in the business, and turmoil means uncertainty, so we're a little unsure of these numbers."
August sales certainly don't look bouncy. Most analysts expect the seasonally adjusted annual selling rate to be in the low 12-million range -- better than the May-to-June swoon but weaker than the first four months of the year, and close to July's 12.2 million.
Analysts see few signs that Toyota Motor Sales and American Honda dealers have enough stock yet to break their sales skid. They say full Honda and Toyota inventories are necessary for the industry to break out of a tight supply/low incentive sales loop. August per-vehicle incentives averaged $2,663, down 4 percent from a year ago, TrueCar.com Vice President Jesse Toprak said.
But uncertainty about the economy is driving expectations lower for 2012 and beyond.
Goldman Sachs cut its 2012 forecast to 13.5 million, down 1 million from its earlier outlook. IHS Automotive chopped its 2012 forecast by 1.2 million to 13.5 million, and took half a million units out of 2013, reducing it to 15.0 million. RBC Capital now sees next year at 13.3 million, down 700,000.
AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson recently told dealers that it's too early to say if 2012 sales will be lower than expected. "The last three months will be pivotal in deciding how things will go next year," he said.
In April, AutoNation was the first big retailer to cut its 2011 forecast: to 12.5 million, from 13 million.
This month J.D. Power's top auto forecaster, Jeff Schuster, cut his 2011 forecast by 300,000 units, to 12.6 million. His 2012 outlook fell to 14.1 million, from 14.7 million.
"We're going to grow out of this stall," he said, "although slower than we anticipated."
Jason Stein contributed to this report