New-car sales in Md. dipped 14% in March

Activity still brisk, boding well for state, analyst says

April 27, 2001|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

New-car sales dipped more than 14 percent in Maryland last month when compared with March 2000. But the decline isn't a sign that the state's economy is in bad shape, an economist from Towson University said yesterday.

Anirban Basu, director of applied economics for Towson's RESI organization, noted that car sales in March 200 were exceptionally strong - 24 percent higher than in March 1999.

For the first quarter of 2001, new-car sales are down 5.2 percent compared with the corresponding period of last year.

Despite these dips, Basu said, dealership showroom activity is still brisk.

He called new-car sales an important economic barometer and said they indicate that "Maryland's economy is holding up remarkably well considering the nation's significant loss of wealth and the dip in consumer confidence."

Basu was referring to the estimated $4 trillion decline since March 2000 in the value of the shares of publicly traded companies.

"Maryland's economy was red hot in the first quarter of 2000, and if car sales fell only 5.2 percent this quarter, I think that is remarkable," Basu said.

"It says there will be no recession in Maryland."

According to vehicle-title registrations released yesterday by the state Motor Vehicle Administration, Maryland dealers sold 33,129 new cars and trucks last month. This compares with sales of 38,605 in March 2000.

March 2000 was also the auto retailers' second-best selling period for the state since 1991, when the MVA resumed releasing title-registration figures, which equate to sales. It was topped only by June 2000, when consumers bought 39,697 new cars and trucks.

Year-to-date new-car sales totaled 90,341, down from 95,330 in the first quarter of last year.

For the nation, sales of cars and light trucks - including vans, sport utility vehicles and pickups - were off 4.2 percent last month, according to Automotive News, an industry trade publication.

During the first quarter, sales lagged behind those of last year's by 5.8 percent.

Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, insists that 2001 will be another good year for auto dealers.

"Our industry is doing very well," Taylor said. "I'm predicting sales of 16.3 million units [cars and trucks] this year. That will be our third-best year, topped only by 17.4 million units last year and 16.9 million units in 1999."

Used-car sales were down 6.7 percent in Maryland last month, but up 1.8 percent for the first quarter of 2001.

Basu said the used-car market has benefited from the opening of used-car super stores in the state, including the Carmax outlets in Laurel and White Marsh.

The MVA said dealers sold 54,108 used vehicles last month, down from 58,004 in March 2000.

The MVA said the average price for a new car or truck last month was $23,199. The average price for a used automobile was $7,511.

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