Editor's note: An earlier version of this story understated the percentage increase in J.D. Power's latest estimate for 2012 U.S. light vehicle sales compared to its most recent forecast for 2011 sales. The increase is 12 percent.
DETROIT (Reuters) -- The risk of a double-dip recession caused J.D. Power and Associates to lower its 2012 U.S. auto sales forecast by about 2 percent, which would still be a modest rise over expected 2011 sales, the market research firm said.
J.D. Power expects U.S. light vehicle sales to rise 12 percent to 14.1 million units next year, up from a forecast of 12.6 million for 2011.
U.S. light vehicle sales are up 10 percent this year through September.
"The risk of a double-dip recession has increased to nearly 40 percent, driving the reduction in the forecast for 2012," said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power.
Schuster said J.D. Power a few months ago rated the risk of a double-dip recession in the low range of 30 percent to 40 percent and recently raised that to nearly 40 percent.
Probably the most important factor that will determine whether another recession occurs in 2012 is employment, which will greatly impact consumer confidence and vehicle demand, he said.
"The unemployment level is going to be a big driver for consumer spending and we don't see the unemployment level changing much into 2012," Schuster said.
The U.S. unemployment rate is 9.1 percent.
Because of subpar economic signals, J.D. Power said 2012 sales could be negatively impacted by 200,000 to 300,000 units.
"While there have been recent positive signs in the economy and we expect another recession will not materialize, the recovery pace for 2012 is taking another hit, although a complete halt in growth is unlikely," Schuster said in a new report issued by the firm.
General Motors CEO Dan Akerson told Automotive News last week the automaker expected U.S. industry sales to be "flattish" in 2012.
October sales are expected to rise 7 percent on a seasonally adjusted annualized rate to 13.1 million vehicles, up from 12.2 million in October 2010.
The pace of sales in October will remain steady from September, J.D. Power said.
"Consumers are again returning to dealerships, keeping the sales pace more consistent with the strength seen at the beginning of the year," said John Humphrey, senior vice president of global automotive operations for J.D. Power.
North American production for 2011 is forecast at 12.9 million vehicles, matching the previous forecast by J.D. Power, and up 9 percent from 2010.
David Phillips contributed to this report