Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the sales record set in 2000. It was 17.4 million vehicles.
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- U.S. auto sales could set a new historic record this year or at least during the current upward business cycle, General Motors’ chief economist said today.
The annual record of 17.4 million vehicles was set in 2000.
“We’re likely to approach a new record by the end of this year,” Mustafa Mohatarem told an industry audience at the CAR Management Briefing seminars here today. “And I have full confidence that in this cycle, we will see the U.S. at an all-time record.”
He later added: “It will come down to what kind of year-end sales efforts and incentives the various automakers bring out later this year,” Mohatarem said. “But it could easily lift sales above the record.”
Nor will 2015 be the peak of the cycle, the economist predicted.
The seasonally adjusted light-vehicle selling rate for July was 17.55 million. Automakers on Monday reported that U.S. sales rose 5.3 percent to 1.5 million light vehicles.
Mohatarem said that current economic signals in general are promising. Fuel prices are low and will likely get lower, he predicted. Inflation levels remain low. And more young people are finding jobs, he pointed out -- an issue that has been a brake on auto sales for the past few years.
“We’re finally seeing more young people coming into the market,” he said of GM. “Younger consumers are behind a lot of our [Buick] Encore and [Chevrolet] Trax sales.
“Are auto sales peaking? I don’t think so.”
But he said heavy student-loan debt among young buyers continues to hold back industry results. He pointed out that 42 percent of all millennials now have student loan debt, and that the median debt level is at its highest level ever.
“If you are a young person coming out of college, even though you have a decent job, trying to get a loan is a challenge right now, especially if you have student loans outstanding,” he said. “So parents have to co-sign. And cars aren’t cheap.”
If young people can’t get credit, he warned, “that’s going to hold down everything.”