TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- As U.S. auto sales and output roar back to levels many in the industry feared they would never see again, leading industry economists and forecasters have a warning: Dark clouds are on the horizon.
For starters, how about the specter of road congestion and air pollution curbing auto sales in the world's most explosive growth engine, China?
That point, raised by General Motors' chief economist, Mustafa Mohatarem, was one of many ominous signs noted last week during the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here.
Mohatarem also worried that the rebound of Western Europe's economy will yield little long-term vehicle sales penetration.
Ford Motor Co.'s senior economist, Emily Kolinski Morris, sees more immediate concerns looming. One problem: New housing starts are still lagging. Homebuilding activity goes hand-in-hand with sales of full-sized pickups. And full-sized pickup sales are a critical source of profits for the Detroit 3. Ford, GM and Chrysler, along with Toyota and Nissan, are poised to square off next year for an intensified battle in the segment -- without the benefit of robust homebuilding.
Another problem that more people should be concerned about, the experts said: student loans.
Young consumers are so strapped with student loans today that many are forgoing car purchases, warned Yen Chen, senior research economist with the Center for Automotive Research, which hosts the seminars.