Will Consumers Hit the Brakes on Auto Sales in 2013?

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Auto sales have been strong in 2012, especially in November. But 2013 may turn out to be a very different year for the automotive industry.

Who's in the driver's seat?
Last month, sales for Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) were up almost 39%, Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) was up 17%, and Nissan and Chrysler were hovering around 13% and 14 %, respectively. Double-digit sales gains are always good to see, especially after several years of dismal numbers.

Unfortunately, GM and Ford (NYSE: F  ) didn't hit anywhere near double digits in November. But supporters of GM (NYSE: GM  ) will point to its $5 billion in net profits this year, and its strategy to replace 80%  of its line in the next two years. New cars typically fetch more money than older lines, so this move could boost sales for the company next year.

Although it's true that sales were solid in the U.S. last month, and that there's pent-up demand for new vehicles from people who chose not to replace vehicles during the recession, we've got to keep current sales in perspective. In 2000, there were more than 17.3 million new cars sold in the U.S. – compared to only 14.4 million this year .

The global market
China, the world's largest automotive market, is seeing a slowdown in sales right now. Ford and GM have invested billions in the country, and others are doing the same. This will bring future sales for the companies, but it also means that GM and Ford will have to ride the country's ups and downs.

China's slowing economy has hurt new car sales, as well (big surprise). It's difficult to be glum about China's sluggish sales when the country is poised to overtake sales in both Japan and Germany over the next few years. But that doesn't lessen the blow for automakers right now.

Europe doesn't look any better for the auto industry, either. The eurozone's economic woes have caused auto sales to stumble, and next year doesn't look much better. GM expects its sales to drop about 5% in the region compared to this year, and Moody's expects sales in Western Europe to contract by 3 %. Europe's debt problems make the U.S. fiscal cliff look more like small hill, and it's doubtful that Europeans will boost auto sales any time soon.

Mapping the automotive future
Although 2013 U.S. sales are expected to be slightly higher compared to this year, don't expect the same sales growth that the industry has had over the past few years. Sales growth is expected to drop into the single digits ­­for the first time since 2010.

One bright spot for U.S. auto sales next year comes from car leases. More leases are set to expire in 2013 than in 2012, which could help increase sales. But even with these sales, 2013 looks mediocre, at best.

Fools looking for automotive stocks in the future should see which companies are positioning themselves in the best markets. We already mentioned China; although its growth is slowing, it's still the most strategic play automakers can make, and will be the place to sell cars going forward.

Though Ford was a latecomer to China, the company will introduce 15 new vehicles in the country by 2015, and will produce over one million cars in China that same year. Ford only sells one-fifth the amount of cars that GM sells in China, but that just shows me there's room for growth. With $5 billion recently invested in China, Ford is looking ahead to its future in the country. Foolish investors would be wise to keep an eye on Ford's sales there, and see whether it can establish itself with Chinese customers. Faltering in China now could hurt Ford in the years to come.

Ford's stock seems stuck in neutral right now, which could mean that it's an incredible buying opportunity, or it's on the brink of tumbling. To decipher which way it might go, one of our top equity analysts has compiled a premium research report with in-depth analysis on whether Ford is a buy right now, and why. Simply click here to get instant access to this premium report.


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