DETROIT — U.S. light-vehicle sales will fall 1.2% to 16.8 million next year as slower job growth, lower consumer spending and affordability weigh on demand, according to the latest National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) forecast.
New-car and light-truck deliveries in 2019 have dropped 1.4% through November, according to Automotive News Data Center estimates, but the industry remains on track to generate sales in excess of 17 million units for a record fifth year in a row, helped in part by higher discounts and higher fleet shipments that have offset lower retail volume.
A year ago, many analysts, citing rising interest rates, expected 2019 sales to fall below 17 million for the first time since 2014.
Rising new-vehicle prices have discouraged some shoppers and forced buyers to look at used vehicles, even as interest rates have stabilized, and job growth, consumer spending and the overall economy remain on solid ground, analysts say. Some lenders have also begun tightening lending standards for car buyers.
"At this time last year, the Fed was on a path of increasing interest rates, and we expected that rates would continue to climb throughout the year," NADA Senior Economist Patrick Manzi said.
"The Fed changing course on interest rates helped some consumers with vehicle affordability issues, as well as provided relief for dealers struggling with steadily increasing floorplan costs."
LMC Automotive and J.D. Power also see 2020 U.S. light-vehicle demand falling to 16.8 million units from a projected 17.1 million in 2019.
"As for 2019, it appears new-vehicle sales will best the expectations of most in the industry by topping 17 million units for the fifth straight year," Mr. Manzi said.
NADA expects light trucks will account for more than 70% of new-vehicle sales in 2019.
"By the end of 2020, NADA projects that three of every four new vehicles sold will be light trucks, a significant increase from a decade ago when the new-vehicle sales mix was 48% light trucks and 52% cars," the trade group said in its forecast.
"Consumers like the added practicality and ride height afforded by light trucks," Mr. Manzi added. "And crossovers, which account for more than 40% of the total new-vehicle market, continue to increase in fuel efficiency each year — offering fuel economy close to their sedan counterparts. In the absence of a significant spike in gasoline prices for a sustained period of time, we expect this shift in preference as permanent."
In October, the average new-vehicle transaction price was $36,744, up 3.9% from October 2018, according to the NADA Dealership Financial Profile Series.
"Franchised dealers have experienced growth in manufacturer-backed certified preowned sales," NADA said, due to increased vehicle transaction prices and affordability concerns. According to Cox Automotive, certified pre-owned (CPO) sales are up 2.9% through October 2019.
"The price gap between average monthly loan payments for new and used vehicles is widening and hit $159 in November 2019, according to J.D. Power," Mr. Manzi said. "Consumers, even those with stellar credit, are choosing to buy pre-owned vehicles from new-car dealerships, which are uniquely positioned and qualified to sell CPO vehicles."
NADA anticipates off-lease returns to dealerships to top 4 million units in 2019 and remain near that level in 2020, adding to franchised dealers' used-vehicle inventory and sales.
According to J.D. Power, incentive spending, on average, broke records in November 2019 at $4,520 per unit, beating the all-time high set in December 2017, and an increase of 11.6% over November 2018.
"With year-to-date new-vehicle retail sales down by 1 to 2%, manufacturers have responded by offering more cash on the hood to entice buyers," Mr. Manzi said. "We expect incentives to remain elevated in December as dealers clear out their lots to make room for new models."
NADA said it expects growth in U.S. domestic product of about 2.3% in 2019, with growth falling to about 2% in 2020.
"We expect the rate of job growth to slow to between 150,000 to 160,000 jobs per month," Mr. Manzi said. "And as businesses compete for workers, there's still more room for wages to rise."