Is there a glimmer of recovery beginning to show in the U.S. automotive market?

The answer might best be described as “pale” or “clouded,” according to the latest Wachovia Capital Markets Dealer Survey, which reveals recent auto retailer market trends.

Wachovia polled 33 dealership general managers and principals in 16 U.S. states, primarily in the South, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and West. The March edition of the survey, conducted six times a year, covers dealership activity in January-February 2009 and shows signs of improvement in some key areas.

According to the report:

  • Dealers are scaling back orders to right-size inventory and there are signs of stabilization in dealer order trends. About 34% of those surveyed intend to cut new-vehicle orders in the next 60 days, compared with 46% in the November-December survey.
  • #Finance availability improved meaningfully from the November-December survey, with about 30% of dealers reporting an increase in the number of consumer finance options. This compares with only 3% reporting an increase in the last survey and 0% reporting such in the September-October survey.
  • ÆEighty-seven percent of the dealers surveyed report used-vehicle sales “above” or “in line with” their expectations, compared with 83% in the November-December 2008 survey. Because trade-ins have dropped substantially due to declining new-vehicle sales, about 58% of dealers believe they have just enough used-vehicle inventory, while 42% indicate they have too little. In the previous survey, 89% thought they had enough inventory and 6% had too little.
  • zParts and service operations have slowed, with 9% of dealers reporting fixed operations performance “above” and 51% “in line with” their expectations. This compares with 14% above and 57% in line with expectations in the previous survey period. Many dealer executives mention traffic is down and consumers are limiting their repair expenditures and postponing expensive repairs.
  • 9There has been no discernable impact on new-vehicle purchases from the sales-tax deduction. Some 88% of the dealers report they don’t believe the sales-tax deduction is enough to convince consumers to buy a new vehicle. The consumer fundamentally has lost confidence and prefers to preserve cash at this juncture.