Industry Crib Sheet: Late Rally Lifts 1st-Quarter Auto Sales

April 28, 2014

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U.S. auto sales in the first quarter of this year paced 13 percent ahead of the same quarter last year, and March's annualized sales rate surpassed the all-important benchmark of 16 million vehicles, according to data from the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA).

An unexpectedly robust March helped the consumer auto market recover from sales slumps in January and February, when harsh winter weather over much of the country kept buyers away from dealer showrooms. It was widely reported that vehicle sales surged in the last two weeks of March for a monthly take of 1.5 million vehicles.

Heading into the heart of spring, new-car sales are expected to remain strong. Auto market analysts have predicted that consumers will continue to flock to dealerships as a result of delaying their car shopping early in the year. Sales data for the month of April will be released later this week. Analysts are expecting this year's light-vehicle sales to top the 15.6 million units sold last year.

Through the first quarter of 2014, dealerships across the nation sold 3.7 million cars and light trucks. Asian-based carmakers and their North American-based counterparts were almost dead-even in market share, at 45.8 percent to 45.5 percent, respectively. General Motors led the Detroit-based automakers with 649,637 vehicles sold, despite being embroiled in a continuing recall scandal.

On a 7.1 percent first-quarter expansion over the same period last year, light-truck sales outnumbered car sales, at 52.2 percent versus 47.8 percent of the total market. The compact sport-utility vehicle segment (defined by NADA as cross utility vehicles) held the largest year-to-date sales share (27.4 percent), followed by midsize cars (19.1 percent) and compact cars (18.9 percent).

The markets for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles both surged over the same period last year, with electrics pacing 44.7 percent faster and plug-in hybrids 36.5 percent faster. For the first quarter, more than 100,000 conventional hybrid vehicles were sold, but this was 18.1 percent lower than first-quarter 2013. More than 12,500 electrics were sold through March.

Pickup trucks dominated the top 10 vehicle models sold, with the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado, and Dodge Ram claiming the first three spots. They were followed by the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Toyota Corolla/Matrix, Ford Fusion, Ford Escape, and Honda Civic.

Will Robotics Sales Rebound After Mild 2013 Decline? 

More than a quarter-million industrial robots are now in use at U.S. production plants, making the United States second only to Japan in the use of robotics. This is the most recent assessment of the U.S. robotics market by the Robotic Industries Association, and RIA indicates that North American manufacturers have barely scratched the surface of the market's potential.

"Many observers believe that only about 10 percent of the U.S. companies that could benefit from robots have installed any so far," said Jeff Burnstein, president of the RIA. "A very large segment of small and medium-sized companies who may have the most to gain are just now beginning to seriously investigate robotics."

For the industrial robotics industry, 2013 was the best year on record in terms of shipments, as suppliers shipped 22,591 robots valued at $1.39 billion. This represented 10 percent growth over 2012, and a 7 percent improvement in terms of dollar value. Nearly 3,200 robotic units were exported last year.

This was achieved despite a 5 percent drop in new orders in 2013. As many shipments moved for orders placed in 2012, robotics suppliers saw new orders decline particularly from automotive companies. "While the cyclical purchases by automotive companies contracted in 2013 for robotics, we saw strong growth in non-automotive industries," said Alex Shikany, RIA's director of market analysis. "The total number of robots ordered for use in non-automotive industries grew 22 percent."

The most new orders came from the life sciences market, followed by the food and consumer goods markets. In terms of applications, increases were seen in assembly (+61 percent), material handling (+13 percent), and coating and dispensing (+5 percent).

The robotics market also finished 2013 on a strong note, as fourth-quarter orders totaled 5,831 units -- the third-highest quarterly total on record. RIA is expected to release its next quarterly market report shortly.

Suppliers of robots and integrated manufacturing systems have positive expectations for 2014, as the manufacturing sector in general has picked up and more manufacturers are turning to automation to stay competitive by reducing operating cost and raising productivity.

Aside from manufacturing, the burgeoning growth of e-commerce also figures to expand the use of material-handling robots in the supply chain sector, as rapid online sales put fulfillment pressures on warehouses and distribution centers. Solutions for automated order picking; palletizing, packing, and loading and vice versa; and sorting/staging will be increasingly in demand.

MAPI: Manufacturing Will Accelerate This Year and Next 

The latest quarterly U.S. industrial outlook by the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) forecasts a 3.2 percent growth for the manufacturing sector for 2014 before a revised 4 percent expansion in 2015.

MAPI indicates that the manufacturing sector will pick up pace because of a number of macroeconomic improvements. Tax policy issues were absorbed in 2013, for one, while the two-year federal budget and debt ceiling agreement reduced economic uncertainty. Manufacturing grew 2.3 percent last year, according to the trade group.

Daniel J. Meckstroth, MAPI's chief economist, added that household debt remains low, as consumers' fiscal responsibility improved as a result of the recession, and now home prices and stocks are rising. Also aiding business conditions is the Eurozone's emergence from its recession.

MAPI says first-quarter manufacturing production was flat and expects quarterly GDP growth will be under 2 percent. However, because much of the slowdown was attributed to the harsh winter, the decline will be short-lived, the trade group says.

Meckstroth notes that nearly all of the acceleration in production growth is coming from demand for core capital goods. This is consistent with recent Department of Commerce factory orders data indicating a rise in business-investment-driven manufacturing. "Firms have lots of cash, are profitable, and have relatively high utilization rates," Meckstroth commented.

The MAPI outlook examines 27 major industries and forecasts 23 of them. Of note, production of computers and electronic products will jump robustly from 4.4 percent growth in 2013 to 6.8 percent this year and 7.2 percent in 2015. This year, 20 industries will show gains and three will remain flat.

Meckstroth reported that nine industries are in the accelerating growth (recovery) phase of the business cycle, six are in the decelerating growth (expansion) phase, seven are in the accelerating decline (either early recession or mid-recession) phase, and five are in the decelerating decline (late recession or very mild recession) phase.

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