U.S. retail auto sales could fall 45% in March, J.D. Power says

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Retail auto sales in the U.S. were 35 percent lower than expected last week, putting March on pace to be as much as 45 percent worse for automakers than a year ago, according to data published Wednesday by J.D. Power.

Sales are forecast to plunge even further this week and in the coming months after a number of states ordered most residents to stay home as much as possible to help contain the coronavirus outbreak.

For all of March, J.D. Power is forecasting that retail sales will be 38 percent to 45 percent lower than in March 2019. The company expects year-over-year plunges of as much as 78 percent in April and 75 percent in May.

J.D. Power said the virus outbreak could eliminate 1.8 million to 2.8 million retail sales through July.

Transaction data collected by the company showed sales generally were in line with expectations through March 11. The sales pace was 22 percent lower than anticipated on March 13, 30 percent lower on March 17 and 43 percent lower on March 21, a Saturday.

The drop-off was even steeper in certain parts of the country, including an 86 percent plunge over the weekend in San Francisco after California residents were told to shelter at home.

One factor that could help prop up demand for new vehicles during the crisis is the fact that 1.8 million leases are scheduled to end from March through July, J.D. Power said.

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