DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- A top Ford Motor Co. executive said the U.S. auto sales pace may have moderated after the Federal Reserve signaled it could begin unwinding its accommodative monetary policy.
"The industry was really strong in the first half of the month, but maybe slowed a bit in the last week," Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of the Americas, told reporters Thursday. Ford is monitoring whether concerns over rising interest rates are denting consumer confidence, he said.
Auto lending has accelerated as the U.S. market rebounds to a pace of more than 15 million sales this year, positioning the industry for its best year since 2007. The Fed's monetary policy has driven rates for new-car loans to record lows, supporting demand from U.S. consumers looking to swap the oldest vehicles ever on American roads for new cars and trucks.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week that the Fed may taper the current $85 billion monthly bond-buying program later this year and halt purchases around mid-2014 should the economy grow in line with Fed projections. Concluding the stimulus program may take years to complete since most Fed officials said they don't expect to begin raising the benchmark lending rate out of its lowest-ever range of zero to 0.25 percent until 2015.
"That could be something as it gets more and more attention in the last week that could have an effect on consumers," Hinrichs said today. "It will be interesting to watch where consumer confidence goes as the market kind of fluctuated in the last week and they talk around eventually higher interest rates, and what that means for consumers' buying confidence."
Ford, the biggest gainer of U.S. market share this year, expects a strong June close for its sales this weekend, which leads up to the July 4 holiday, Hinrichs said. The automaker is adding capacity to build 200,000 more vehicles annually in North America on demand for its F-Series pickups and Fusion sedans, and most of its regional assembly plants also are taking shorter summer shutdowns.
Ford is seeing the effects of the weaker yen in pricing and incentives from Japanese automakers, Hinrichs said. Ford CEO Alan Mulally last week called Japan a currency manipulator that's giving local exporters an unfair edge.
"We are seeing some signs that businesses are doing what they would do with a currency devaluation," Hinrichs told reporters. "We have seen increased incentives on Prius products, which are all made in Japan. The Lexus ES has had a substantial increase in incentives this year." The Prius hybrid and Lexus luxury line are produced by Toyota Motor Corp.
Nissan Motor Co.'s 25 percent U.S. sales gain in May tripled the industywide sales increase. The automaker cut the price of seven models, including its top-selling Altima sedan.
The company's price reductions were the first sign of a Japanese automaker taking advantage of the weakening yen, which has declined about 19 percent against the dollar since Oct. 31.
Currency changes could make it more difficult for the rest of the industry to charge for optional content and command improved pricing, Raj Nair, Ford's head of product development, told reporters today.
"When you get into manipulation" of currency, "you create a lot of disconnects that disadvantage certain parts of the industry and advantage others," Nair said. "That can have repercussions."
Ford shares rose 2.4 percent to $15.65 at the close Thursday in New York.
The shares have surged 21 percent this year, compared with a 13 percent increase for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.