February auto sales disappoint but no reason for panic

03/03/2010 9:49 am EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

You can come up with lots of reasons why investors shouldn’t panic at the slide in February U.S. auto sales to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 10.4 million. That was down from the seasonally adjusted 10.8 million sales rate in January 2010 although up from the 9.2 million rate of February 2009.

Snow storms. Troubles and more troubles at Toyota. A big drop in sales from brands such as Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer, and Saab that General Motors (GM) has decided to discontinue.

All those cut in February sales and make hard to argue that the recovery in the auto industry has stalled.

But the numbers aren’t a rousing endorsement of pedal to the metal growth either.

Especially once you take account of the month’s big increase in sales to rental car companies and other fleet owners. Fleet sales almost doubled for General Motors ad climbed to `13% of sales at Toyota from 8% in February 2009. Fleet sales typically carry much lower margins than sales to individual consumers. (Auto sales ran at an average rate of 16.8 million from 2000-2007.)

For a reliable read on the industry we’ll just have to wait for March data and hope that nothing—sleet, snow nor dead of night—interrupts auto sales in that month.

But February did bring honest to goodness good news for some individual car makers.

Sales at Ford Motor (F) jumped by 43% from February 2009. Honda Motor (HMC) saw a pickup of almost 13% in U.S. sales And Hyundai Motor gained almost 12%.

General Motors reported that total vehicles sales increased by 11.5%. That fell short of Wall Street projections of 20% growth.

As you might expect, Toyota Motor’s problems with sudden acceleration that led the company to suspend sales of eight models didn’t help sales at the Japanese auto maker. February 2010 U.S. sales for Toyota dropped by almost 9% from February 2009.

Lower than projected growth at General Motors, the troubles at Toyota, and Ford’s huge sales growth combined to give Ford the No. 1 market share in the U.S. market for the first time since 1998.

Something to watch today: See if the drop in February’s annualized sales rate—even with all the mitigating factors—leads investors to sell shares of auto suppliers such as Jubak’s Picks Johnson Controls (JCI). You might get a chance to build positions in a sector that looks like a big beneficiary of even a modest economic rebound.

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