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Chip Shortage Makes Big Dent in Automakers’ U.S. Sales

Four of the biggest sellers of cars and trucks in the United States said Friday that their sales had plunged recently, reflecting the intense squeeze that a global semiconductor shortage has put on auto production.

General Motors, Honda, Nissan and Stellantis reported significant declines in sales in the three months that ended in September — in G.M.’s case, a drop of one-third from a year earlier — as chip shortages forced them to idle plants, leaving dealers with few vehicles to offer customers.

Toyota had a slight increase for the quarter, but its sales in September fell sharply after it was forced to slash global production because of the chip shortage and other disruptions to its parts supplies stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are in uncharted waters,” said Alan Haig, president of Haig Partners, an automotive consultant. “We’ve never seen a vehicle shortage like this. There are just not enough cars to sell.”

The shortage of semiconductors stems from the beginning of the pandemic, when automakers around the world closed factories for weeks and suddenly cut their orders for computer chips. At the same time, manufacturers of laptops, game consoles and other electronics were demanding more chips as sales of their products took off among homebound consumers.

When automakers resumed production, chip makers had much less production capacity to allocate for automotive chips.

Strong auto sales, spurred in part by government stimulus checks, helped prop up consumer spending during the first year of the pandemic. But now production delays and depleted inventories are hurting sales when waning government support and the rise of the Delta variant of the coronavirus are acting as a drag on consumer spending.

The forecasting firm IHS Markit on Friday lowered its estimate of third-quarter consumer spending growth to an annual rate of just 0.4 percent, down from 12 percent in the second quarter, contributing to a sharp slowdown in overall economic growth.

Automakers have tried to use the electronic components they have in stock for their most profitable vehicles, such as pickup trucks and large sport utility vehicles. But in recent months those models have been affected, too.

With fewer vehicles rolling off assembly lines, dealers’ inventories have become skimpy. On Friday, Kenosha Toyota in Wisconsin had a single new vehicle for sale — a two-wheel-drive Tacoma pickup. Suburban Chevrolet of Ann Arbor in Michigan was displaying just 11 new models for sale on its website.

Despite the shortage, automakers and dealers alike are reaping hefty profits because tight inventories have forced consumers to pay higher prices. J.D. Power estimated that the average selling price of a new vehicle in September was $42,802, up more than $12,000 from the same month in 2020.

“It’s a bonanza for the dealers and the factories, despite the shortage of inventory,” Mr. Haig said.

With new cars scarce, prices of used cars have also shot up. And the latest sales figures raise concerns that the inventory shortage is worsening and crimping sales.

“There are simply not enough vehicles available to meet consumer demand,” said Thomas King, president of J.D. Power’s data and analytics division.

At General Motors, sales were down 33 percent in the quarter. The automaker sold 446,997 vehicles, compared with 665,192 light trucks and cars a year earlier. In the same quarter of 2019, G.M. sold 738,638.

Honda’s sales were down 11 percent in the quarter, to 354,914 cars and trucks. But a decline in September of nearly 25 percent from the prior year showed the increasing squeeze on production. Stellantis, which was formed by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot, reported a 19 percent drop in third-quarter sales. At Nissan, the decline was 10 percent.

Toyota said its sales in the quarter were about 1 percent higher than a year earlier, at 566,005. But its sales for September were down 22 percent.

General Motors does not report monthly sales figures. Ford is expected to report its third-quarter sales on Monday.

The shortage of semiconductors has forced manufacturers to idle plants for weeks at a time. G.M. idled several pickup truck plants for parts of August and September. Toyota cut global production by 40 percent in September, and expects a similar cut in October.

General Motors emphasized that a lack of potential buyers was not the problem. “Underlying demand conditions remain strong, thanks to ample job openings, growing pent-up vehicle demand and excess savings accumulated by many households during the pandemic,” Elaine Buckberg, G.M.’s chief economist, said in a company statement.

And the company signaled that the chip supply was improving. “We look forward to a more stable operating environment through the fall,” said Steve Carlisle, the president of G.M. North America.

At the end of September, G.M. had 128,757 vehicles in dealer inventories, down from 211,974 at the end of June and more than 334,000 at the end of the first quarter. In years past, the figure was often about 800,000.

Toyota had 37,516 vehicles on dealer lots at the end of the quarter, and 61,208 at ports serving the U.S. market. At the current sales rate, that is enough to last about 18 days.

Ben Casselman contributed reporting.

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