By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - Severe supply disruptions in the wake of Japan's earthquake could slow the gradual recovery of the U.S. auto industry just as it was starting to gain momentum.
Analyst Edmunds.com said the earthquake and its aftermath could cut 2011 U.S. auto sales to a rise of 6 percent over 2010 instead of the 12 percent rise that is currently forecast.
Edmunds said on Friday that the lack of parts to build vehicles will cut into available U.S. auto inventory and sales this summer, when small-car demand is expected to peak due to high gasoline prices, but automakers are likely to make up those lost sales later in the year.
Edmunds is maintaining its 12 percent growth forecast for this year.
Small-car leaders based in Japan, Toyota Motor Corp, and Honda Motor Co face crimped supply due to production cuts.
"At this point we're still optimistic that any supply constraints will only slide summer sales to later in the year when automaker production is expected to be back to normal," said Lacey Plache, Edmunds chief economist.
Plache said that Edmunds' 2011 forecast of 12.9 million new auto sales could fall to 12.6 million if supply disruptions and lower production are "moderate," and 12.2 million if they are "severe."
Last year, U.S. auto sales were 11.5 million units, an 11 percent gain over 2009 sales, which were the lowest in almost three decades.
These figures do not include medium and heavy trucks.
Edmunds said U.S. April sales of new light vehicles are likely be near 13.3 million on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis, up 19 percent from April 2010.
Prices monitored by Edmunds are up $120 per vehicle, based on early April sales.
Edmunds analyst Ray Zhou said that early April sales would indicate a pace of 14.1 million on a seasonally adjusted annual rate, but that it is likely the first month of spring will show sales of 13.3 million on the adjusted annual basis.
Lean inventories of some models, primarily small fuel-efficient cars as gasoline prices rise toward $4 per gallon, and concerns about product availability in the aftermath of the earthquake have prompted many U.S. consumers to rush their purchases ahead of a perceived shortage for some models, said Jeremy Anwyl, Edmunds chief executive.
Small-car prices are on the rise the most, due to the thinning of inventory due to the Japan crisis, said Zhou. Cars are also spending less time on dealer lots than they were a short time ago, Zhou said.
Fewer small cars and fewer days on a dealer lot, Zhou said, are "laying a foundation for future price increases due to the potential shortage."
In March, U.S. light vehicle sales were 13.1 million on a seasonally adjusted annualized rate. Using the same basis, April 2010 sales were 11.2 million, and April 2009 sales were 9.2 million, during one of the lowest monthly sales rates of the 2008-2009 downturn for the auto industry.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall, editing by Matthew Lewis)