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Automakers dodged parts shortage, but virus poses new threat

FILE - In this April 16, 2019, file photo, attendees take a close look at cars from BYD at the Auto Shanghai 2019 show in Shanghai. China’s auto sales plunged 81.7% in February, 2020, from a year ago after Beijing shut down much of the economy to fight a virus outbreak, adding to problems for an industry that already was struggling with shrinking demand. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

DETROIT (AP) — When the coronavirus cut off the flow of parts from China in early January, most global automakers were ready: Anticipating such a crisis, they had prepared to tap other suppliers and to conserve parts that they had stored.
Now, they face fast-moving new threats that seem beyond their control: Falling sales and sickened factory workers as the COVID-19 disease spreads through the United States and Europe.
The result is that the auto industry, which helped lead the U.S. economy out of the financial meltdown more than a decade ago, could be forced to reduce spending, slow or shutter factories and draw upon cash stockpiles to weather a pandemic that is likely to tilt the world into a recession.
With many countries essentially locked down, professional sports leagues canceling games and dizzying falls in the stock markets, analysts say fear is setting in. That portends diminished consumer confidence and likely lower auto sales.
“People aren’t rushing out and saying, ‘Now is a good time to buy a car,’ “ said Brian Collie, global leader for automotive with Boston Consulting Group. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s wait. On hold.'”
Earlier this month, the consulting firm LMC Automotive lopped nearly 4 million vehicles off its forecast for 2020 global sales — a 4.4% decline to 86.4 million. For the U.S., the forecast dropped 3% to 16.5 million.
Others see a gloomier outlook.
Adam Jonas, a veteran analyst at Morgan Stanley, expects about a 9% decline in the United States.
In an investor note, Jones warned that sales for the year could go as low as 14.5 million, “driven by the potential demand shock that could stem from coronavirus fears.” Last year’s sales were above 17 million.
Jeff Schuster, a senior vice president at LMC, noted that his firm’s forecast was made early in the month and that conditions have worsened since then. It’s likely, Schuster said, that LMC’s forecast could be downgraded in the United States and globally.
Garrett Nelson, senior equity analyst with CFRA, said auto sales in China are a good harbinger of what would happen as the virus spreads further in the U.S. and other countries. Sales in China fell 44% during the first two months of the year, including an 82% plunge in February, with much of the country on lockdown.
In the Seattle area, which is suffering through the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the nation, sales at Bowen Scarff Ford Lincoln have sunk to nearly nothing in the past week.