Detroit automakers looking at booming sales this year 

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 01:  Chrysler Group vehicles are offered for sale at the Marino Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealership on November 1, 2013 in Chicago, ...
Chrysler vehicles at the Marino Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealership on Nov. 1, 2013 in Chicago. Chrysler, along with GM and Ford, are expecting a jump in overall sales this year. Scott Olson

With millions of dollars of television commercials airing this month and millions more in incentive money on the table, automakers are expected to end the year with sales expected to be up at least 4 percent from December last year and the industry anticipating all-time record consumer spending.

While new-vehicle sales started off slowly in December, they are expected to finish strong at the end of the month, according to a monthly sales forecast developed jointly by J.D. Power and LMC Automotive. That would be good news for industry planners worried about a recent bulge in dealer inventories that’s already led several manufacturers to trim back production.

Consumers in the U.S. are expected to spend more than $34 billion on new vehicles in December, a historic high for the month. That reflects not just the end-of-year sales burst but also record transaction prices, according to the forecast. The optimism was reinforced by a new report from the U.S. Department of Commerce which indicated the U.S. economy was expanding more rapidly than first thought. The Commerce Department now estimates the U.S. economy grew by 4.1% during the third quarter.

"Strong consumer demand in December is the culmination of another strong year for the automotive industry," said John Humphrey, senior vice president of the global automotive practice at J.D. Power. "Retail sales in 2013 are expected to reach 12.8 million, with consumer spending reaching a record $375 billion, a $40 billion increase from 2012."

(Want the 1st 2015 Ford Mustang? Be Prepared to Write a 6-Figure Check)

Total light-vehicle sales in December are expected to reach 1.4 million, a 4 percent increase from December 2012, with an additional, if more modest, year-over-year increase in fleet volume. Fleet share of total light-vehicle sales in December remains below 17 percent compared to 17.6 percent for the year as a whole.

Added up, total light-vehicle sales for 2013 should finish at 15.6 million units. LMC Automotive has increased its total and retail light-vehicle sales forecasts for 2014 each by 100,000 to 16.2 million and 13.3 million units, respectively.

That’s about in the middle of the range. Consulting firm IHS Automotive last week predicted a slightly lower 16.1 million, while other forecasts have offered numbers ranging as high as 16.5 million for all of 2014.

"The budget deal in Washington is helping fuel a higher level of optimism for the economy and auto sales in 2014," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive. "December sales faced some challenges early in the month, with some sales pulled ahead in November and winter storms (keeping some buyers away from showrooms, but) they have rebounded well, and the year ahead is set up to edge new-vehicle sales closer to pre-recession levels."

Vehicle production in North America year-to-date through November has increased 5 percent from the same period in 2012, with nearly 700,000 units of additional volume. Even as inventory has increased, production volume in November remained strong at 1.4 million units, a 4-percent increase from November 2012.

(Safety Group Names "America's Safest Cars")

But there are some concerns that the industry may be turning up production faster than the market can handle. The inventories of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler continued to build and their combined days' supply climbed from 87 days at the beginning of November, to 93 days by the end of the month.

Schuster said that while it is normal for manufacturers to build up inventory to meet year-end demand, the level is slightly ahead of expectations, and doing so this late in the year has the potential to affect production in the first quarter of 2014.

Some of the inventory build-up can be traced to dealers ordering pickup trucks and utility vehicles in advance of the planned shutdowns for model change at GM and Ford. But those two makers have also decided to take more downtime at some of their plants this month in an effort to reduce excess inventories.

“We’re now on a true turn-and-earn policy,” Mark Reuss, president of GM’s North American operations, told “We’re running our plants based on what we sold last month.”

In contrast, European and Asian manufacturers all maintained or reduced their inventory levels in November.

Given the unexpected Detroit Three production push in November, LMC Automotive has increased its volume outlook for 2013 North American production to 16.2 million units, Schuster said. First quarter 2014 production is expected to grow 4.2 million units, a 4 percent increase, compared with the same period in 2013. Full-year production in 2014 is forecast at 16.6 million units, which would be a 3 percent increase from 2013.

(Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.)