GM, Ford Report Weak Sales as DaimlerChrysler Sales Jump - TheStreet

Ford Motor

(F) - Get Report

and

General Motors

(GM) - Get Report

reported that August sales of cars and trucks fell 3% and 5%, respectively, on a day-to-day basis.

But the American unit of

DaimlerChrysler

(DCX)

, the world's third-largest carmaker, said record sales of sport utility vehicles and minivans helped increase its sales by 2% over August 1999. Other overseas automakers reported similarly strong results, with some -- including

Honda

,

Mercedes

and

BMW

-- reporting their highest monthly sales ever.

GM Slips

Detroit-based General Motors, the world's biggest automaker, said it sold 435,597 cars and trucks in August, down 5% from a year earlier. The company said the decline was not unexpected, as last year's sales were the highest in GM's history.

Despite slower sales in recent months, GM's year-to-date sales rose to 3.47 million units, 1.3% higher than at this time last year. The 5% jump in year-to-date sales of GM trucks more than offset a 2% decline in car sales this year.

"We never find a comfort level when sales are down, but its important to keep in perspective that as the calendar year progresses, industry moderation is expected," said Bill Lovejoy, a GM group vice president, in a statement Friday.

Still, it appeared the drop in sales at GM and Ford may have been more the result of company-specific issues than the reflection of industry-wide trends.

For example, while GM's truck sales in August were the second-highest on record for the month, sales of its full-size sports utility vehicles dropped 13%, in part because GM was unable to ramp up production fast enough to keep up with demand, according to the company.

Brand Problems at Ford

Ford's problems were more brand-specific. It sold 17% more Lincolns and 15.8% more Volvos in August, compared with a year earlier, but sales of its Mercury vehicles were down nearly one-third last month, and Land Rover sales fell nearly 12% in August.

Still, on a month-to-month (vs. day-to-day) basis, sales at the Detroit-based company grew over all to 352,453, from 349,855 in August 1999, to set a new August record.

Percent changes for the auto companies' reported sales are based on a daily rate. There were 27 selling days in the month of August, while in August 1999, there were 26 days recorded. Sales on Sundays and major holidays are not included in the sales data.

Ford, the world's second-largest automaker, has been plagued lately by a host of unusual problems that may affect sales in the near-term. The company faces lawsuits implicating it for Ford Explorer accidents attributed to faulty

Firestone tires, calls for criminal charges by Venezuela's consumer protection agency and a major worldwide tire recall.

Costs related to the tire recall, a shortage of parts slowing production of the Expedition line and continued weak sales of the company's Excursion prompted

Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown

to reduce its earnings estimates for the current and upcoming quarter, as well as for the fiscal year. The firm maintains its "buy" rating on the stock, however. It does not underwrite Ford.

"We believe portfolio managers will remain wary of Ford's shares for the near future in the face of unquantifiable liability risks," said Rod Lache, a Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown analyst, in a research report released Thursday. "Because valuation is attractive, downside risk from current levels may be limited, but we also believe there is limited upside."

David Garrity, an auto sector analyst at

Dresdner Kleinwort Benson

, was more blunt in his evaluation.

"Ford's near-term potential is capped -- capped at the knees," said Garrity, who downgraded the company on Tuesday, from a buy to an add rating with a long-term target price of $27.

Shares of Ford closed up 82 cents, or 3%, on Friday at $25.

Despite, the slight slowdown in August sales, Garrity said GM is poised for gains in the near-term. "At the end of the day, it has to be the automotive business that powers the stock -- and, in this regard, there are improvements in place both domestically and overseas."

On Friday, GM's Lovejoy said the company planned to focus on maintaining "market momentum" of its core products, including the Chevrolet Impala and Silverado models, and the Pontiac Grand Prix, which have enjoyed consistently high sales.

Shares of GM ended the day up $2.94, or 4%, at $72.94.

DaimlerChrysler Sales Grow

Garrity maintains a buy rating on GM, with a long-term target of $100. He has a hold on DaimlerChrysler's stock. Dresdner Kleinwort Benson has not had an underwriting relationship with any of the top three automakers' stock in at least two years.

"A lot of the bad news has already affected the (DaimlerChrysler) stock, but we're still looking for the catalyst to get the share price moving up," Garrity said.

Despite skyrocketing sales of DaimlerChrysler's minivan models and its sports utility vehicles last month, industry analysts say improved sales of those brands are not likely to have a significant impact on overall earnings in the near-term.

Sales of the reintroduced Chrysler Voyager grew 37% from last month, but the popular minivan is being discounted as much as $3,000 a unit. In addition, the automaker's overall third-quarter production schedule is down 10% compared with last year, according to

Commerzbank

analysts, who predicted minivan sales aren't likely to contribute significantly to overall profits until the end of the fourth quarter.

"There is little good news for DaimlerChrysler," Commerzbank analysts said in a research note released late Thursday.

The investment bank downgraded its accumulate recommendation on the stock to a "reduce" rating on Thursday, on concerns that any significant upturn in DaimlerChrysler's U.S. sales won't likely come before the start of 2001. Even then, analysts warned that a weaker U.S. light vehicle market, and sagging sales of heavy trucks, could derail the company's attempts at recovery.

Shares of DaimlerChrysler closed up 13 cents, or about a quarter-percent on Friday, at $52.19.

Imports Look Strong

While sales slipped slightly at America's two largest automakers in August, sales of imports rose across-the-board, with some overseas car companies reporting record sales.

The American unit of Honda Motor of Japan reported that sales last month grew by 5.4% to 117,768 cars and trucks, the highest monthly sales ever in the company's history. Honda's year-to-date sales in the U.S. reached 801,646 -- 9.6% ahead of last year's record pace.

Mitsubishi Motor Sales

, Japan's fourth-largest automaker, said its America unit had record sales for the month, with 27,540 vehicles sold, up 6.2% from August 1999. Sales were led by its new luxury and mid-sized Montero sport utility vehicles and a 163% increase in its new Eclipse Spyder.

South Korea-based

Hyundai Motor's

American division reported a 32% increase in sales in August, with 23,583 vehicles sold in the U.S. The company's sales are up 60% on a year-to-date basis, led by soaring sales of its Elantra model. Nearly 11,500 Elantra units were sold last month.

Swedish-based

Volvo

, said its U.S. sales grew 20% last month, from August 1999.

Volkswagen of America said it sold a record 34,276 new cars in the U.S. last month, a 5.8% jump over last year's 32,389 -- making August the best sales month in 26 years. Volkswagen's year-to- date sales are up 15.3% from the same period in 1999 at 244,066, compared to 211,629 last year at this time.

The German automaker

Audi

said sales in its U.S. division grew to 7,326 automobiles in August, the most ever and a 10.7% increase over the same month last year when sales were 6,617. These results total the best year-to-date ever with sales of 54,245, a 32.8% increase over the same period last year when sales were 40,834.

Combined sales in August for

Nissan

and

Infiniti

divisions totaled 70,096 units, a 2.7% increase from last August.

Suzuki Motor Corporation's

American division posted its highest August sales in a dozen years, selling 6,280 vehicles, a 29% increase over August 1999 sales.

Three of the world's top luxury carmakers enjoyed their highest U.S. sales ever.

Mercedes-Benz USA

reported sales of 18,110 vehicles in August, the highest sales on record for that month, and a nearly 15% increase from the previous sales record set in August 1999.

BMW of North America

reported its strongest month ever, with sales of 16,812 vehicles, 22% higher than the 13,781 sales reported in August 1999.

Lexus

recorded its highest sales ever last month, selling 21,280 vehicles, up 20% from August 1999