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April car sales in Md. slipped after March rise


Maryland new-car buyers hoarded their money again last month after a one-month spending spree in March that dealers had hoped was the beginning of a long-awaited trip down the road to recovery.

Motorists bought an estimated 24,025 new cars and trucks in April, a decline of 10.6 percent from the 26,866 sold in April of 1991, based on title-registration figures from the state Motor Vehicle Administration. Maryland officials and economists say the number of new titles closely corresponds to sales of new cars in the state.

"This was not an isolated incident," Michael A. Conte, director of the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Center for Business and Economic Studies, said of the decline in auto sales.

Mr. Conte also noted that housing starts across the country fell 17 percent last month, their largest drop in eight years.

Looking back on the past few months, Mr. Conte said he thinks new-car dealers benefited in March -- when new car sales were up 14.5 percent compared with March 1991 -- as much from a dip in interest rates as any new-found consumer confidence.

Mr. Conte said there seems to be pent-up demand for new cars after three years of lackluster sales and that some buyers jumped at the opportunity to buy at the lower interest rates.

But he added that "consumer confidence is still wobbly" and that consumers seem to be confused, getting good news regarding the economy one day and hearing of layoffs at Bethlehem Steel Corp. the next, for example.

Mr. Conte said he was confident that Maryland's economy is on the road to recovery, despite the decline in car sales.

It might be a "slow and agonizing recovery, but it seems that we are slowly pulling out of the recession," he said.

He predicted further setbacks along the way, however, such as last month's dip in car sales.

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