DETROIT-- Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.'s return to full production this month is boosting U.S. auto sales back near the pace reached before Japan's earthquake.
September light-vehicle sales, to be released Oct. 3, probably rose to a 12.8 million seasonally adjusted annual rate, the average estimate of 14 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. That would be the fastest pace since April, when lost output caused by Japan's tsunami crimped supply of parts and finished cars.
"Recovering inventory levels have helped to bring buyers back into the market," said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power & Associates.
Jesse Toprak, who develops forecasts at TrueCar.com, went so far as to title his latest report "What Recession?" as the auto rebound defies consumer confidence that is near a two-year low.
Toyota has said it expects to reverse monthly U.S. sales declines beginning next month, and Honda is adding overtime shifts at two Ohio plants. Better supply also probably meant incentives rose from the lowest in almost six years.
Sales declines at Toyota and Honda contributed to the U.S. auto sales pace slowing from a 13.1 million rate averaged in the year's first four months to as low as 11.6 million in June, according to researcher Autodata Corp.
U.S. light vehicle sales are up 11 percent this year through August.
Toyota still recovering
Toyota slipped behind Ford Motor Co. to third in U.S. sales this year through August, which was the first month in the past year that its global production increased. The automaker is still recovering and may say sales dropped 15 percent, the average estimate of five analysts surveyed by Bloomberg, leaving it in third again.
"With the launch of the new Camry, October should be even better," said Paul Atkinson, who operates Toyota dealerships in Bryan and Madisonville, Texas. "We're selling as fast as they're coming off the damn truck."
Toyota, ramping up production of the redesigned Camry sedan, expects to reverse monthly U.S. sales declines beginning next month, according to Bob Carter, group vice president for U.S. sales.
Honda is adding overtime shifts at two Ohio assembly plants. Toyota's global production increased for the first time in 12 months in August
Overtime at Honda
Sales may decline 6.1 percent at Honda, the average of five analysts' estimates, after deliveries slid 20 percent or more in each of the past four months.
The automaker is scheduling overtime shifts at its Marysville and East Liberty assembly plants in Ohio, Ron Lietzke, a spokesman, said in a Sept. 28 phone interview.
Honda began the month with 32 days supply of vehicles, from 28 in August, J.D. Power said in a Sept. 22 statement. The industry standard is about 60 days.
General Motors Co. and Ford are anticipating that demand will keep increasing as the largest U.S. automakers negotiate labor contracts that boost production and add jobs.
GM, which reached a new four-year contract with the UAW this month, may report a 19 percent increase in September sales, the average of eight analysts' estimates. The automaker and union said the accord adds or retains 6,400 jobs and will reopen an assembly plant in Tennessee.
Ford has discussed with the UAW adding as many as 10,000 union jobs in the United States, according to three people familiar with the talks. Some of those workers would assemble Fusion sedans, which are currently made in Mexico, said one of the people who asked not to be identified because the negotiations are private.
Deliveries this month may rise 5.9 percent for Ford, the average of eight analysts' estimates. Sales at Fiat-controlled Chrysler Group LLC, which has extended its UAW contract to Oct. 19, may climb 20 percent, the average of seven analysts' estimates.
Confidence among U.S. consumers stagnated in September near a two-year low as the share of households saying it was difficult to find a job climbed to the highest level in almost three decades.
The Conference Board's sentiment index increased by 0.2 to 45.4 from an August reading that was the lowest since April 2009, the New York-based researcher said Sept. 27.
"The economy is stopped dead in its tracks," George Magliano, a New York-based economist at IHS Automotive, said in a phone interview. "Considering that, the auto business is showing pretty good strength. The industry is hiring, it's producing more and there's pent-up demand."
Auto industry shrinks
GM and Ford will be adding back only a portion of the jobs they shed during the recession that sent auto sales to a 27-year low of 10.4 million in 2009, according to Autodata Corp. GM had about 49,000 U.S. hourly employees at the end of 2010, a year after its U.S.-backed bankruptcy.
That's down from 111,000 such workers at the end of 2005, the company said in a Sept. 28 conference call with analysts. Last year, about 962,000 U.S. workers were employed making vehicles and parts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington.
That's down 32 percent from 1.41 million in 2005. The downsizing of the industry, achieved in part by U.S.-backed bankruptcies for GM and Chrysler, meant cutting production capacity.
That prevented U.S. automakers from raising output and offsetting industrywide constraints on inventory after the Japan earthquake and tsunami in March, said Alan Baum, an industry consultant at Baum & Associates.
GM, Ford and Chrysler "had a fairly limited ability to capitalize because there are a lot fewer auto plants and workers than there were four years ago," said Baum, who is based in suburban Detroit. "You can't just add a shift willy-nilly."
Nissan Motor Co., whose better supply of parts has buoyed inventory levels above its Japan-based rivals, may say deliveries climbed 18 percent, the average of five analysts' estimates.
Hyundai Motor Co., South Korea's largest automaker, and its affiliate Kia Motors Corp., may combine to sell 20 percent more vehicles than a year earlier, according to the average of three estimates.
Industrywide deliveries may rise to 12.7 million cars and light trucks this year, the average of 18 analysts' estimates surveyed by Bloomberg in August.
Sales may climb to 13.6 million in 2012, the average of 15 estimates. The U.S. averaged annual sales of 16.8 million vehicles from 2000 to 2007, according to Autodata.
David Phillips contributed to this report