U.S. auto sales softened in January

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U.S. new vehicles sales softened in January, the Commerce Department said Friday.

January sales of lightweight trucks and autos fell 6.8% to 15.0 million annual rate.

That followed a revised 6.8% gain to a 16.1 million unit rate in December.

The drop was larger than expected. Economists surveyed by Econoday expected a slight slowdown to a 15.7 million rate in January.

A separate measure by Autodata Corp. estimated that auto and truck sales fell 6.6% to a 15.1 million rate in January.

Lydia Boussour, senior economist at EY, said that cold weather in January might have been a factor in the surprise decline. She said she didn’t think the slowdown would persist.

The data showed that consumer spending started the year at a slower pace than the solid 2.8% rate in the fourth quarter.

Will Compernolle, economist at FHN Financial, said the January level was at the lower end of monthly sales over the past year, which have been in a range of 14.8 million units to 15.9 million.

“I wouldn’t take it as a red flag that consumer spending has necessarily reached a meaningful inflation point just yet,” Compernolle said.

He added that the retail sales data on Feb. 15 may offer a better look at how consumer spending started the year.

Michael Pearce, U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, said consumer spending is on track for a 2.5% rate in the first quarter.

Pearce said he expected rate cuts from the Federal Reserve later this year will help auto sales reach a 16 million rate, up from 15.6 million in 2023.

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