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China's car slump drags on as consumers wait for incentives

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China's car sales plunged for an 11th month, with little relief in sight for automakers as trade tensions, a slowing economy and consumption trends keep weighing on vehicle demand.

[BEIJING] China's car sales plunged for an 11th month, with little relief in sight for automakers as trade tensions, a slowing economy and consumption trends keep weighing on vehicle demand.

Retail sales of sedans, sport utility vehicles, minivans and multipurpose vehicles fell 16.6 per cent to 1.54 million units in April, the China Passenger Car Association said Friday. That follows a 12 per cent decline in March and an 18.5 per cent drop in February.

The worst car-market slump in a generation is dragging on as shoppers stay away from showrooms ahead of potential government incentives aimed at reviving the market, with local brands being particularly hard hit. Carmakers have invested billions of dollars in the hope that the world's biggest market will keep growing even as vehicle demand in Europe and North America wanes.

"There's little hope for us to see positive signs for the auto market in the first half," Cui Dongshu, secretary general of the industry group, said ahead of the report.

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The escalating trade spat with the US threatens to deal a further blow on demand. The US hiked tariffs on more than US$200 billion of goods from China on Friday in the most dramatic step yet of President Donald Trump's push to extract trade concessions. A retaliation by China in the form of higher import tariffs on US-built cars would bring more price uncertainty for consumers and could prompt them to delay purchases.

Big global manufacturers that have an established brand following and more buyers in China's cities have thus far fared better than smaller local contenders. Customers for cheaper Chinese brands tend to be consumers who live in smaller towns and rural areas and are often considering buying their first car - and are more easily affected by economic woes.

Market leaders Volkswagen AG, Honda Motor Co and Toyota Motor Corp and premium brands BMW and Mercedes were among those gaining share in the first quarter even as the market contracted, according to LMC Automotive. Ford Motor Co and General Motors Co's Wuling and Baojun brands lost ground, according to the researcher.

The slump is seen accelerating consolidation among the country's more than 100 auto brands. Executives are predicting an end for the worst-performing manufacturers as the industry prepares for a reshuffle.

Among carmakers' long-term challenges is a shift in consumer preferences toward ride-hailing and car-sharing services, which are undermining the need for individuals to own a car. Popular ride services such as Didi Chuxing will account for the majority of miles traveled in China by 2025, according to a prediction by Bill Russo, chief executive officer of Shanghai-based consultancy Automobility Ltd.

To help the market rebound, carmakers are counting on the Chinese government to introduce consumer incentives such as tax cuts. Officials are drafting measures to bolster auto sales, people familiar with the matter have said.

BLOOMBERG