Northern Ireland car showrooms see sales dip 6.4%
Car showrooms in Northern Ireland had their quietest January in six years as new registrations fell by 6.4% on last year's performance.
The latest figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) revealed that just 5,660 new cars were recorded here last month, compared with 6,049 in January 2018.
That's 30% below the record high seen in January 2007, when 8,154 new cars were sold, and 15% below the post-recession high of January 2014.
By contrast, the number of new cars rolling out of showrooms in Scotland last month was 9.6% up on January 2018, while Welsh car retailers marginally improved on last year. England was the only other UK region which saw a decline last month, recording a 2.2% drop.
Overall, UK car sales fell for the fifth consecutive month in January, with a small bump in private buyers failing to offset large declines among business and fleet buyers.
Despite the 1.6% decline, the SMMT figures revealed the growing appetite for electrified motors. Registrations of new electric and hybrid cars rose by 26.3% in January, with petrols up 7.3%.
But while 2.9% more private buyers visited UK showrooms in January than in December, demand from business and fleet buyers fell by 33.5% and 3.4% respectively, reflecting the ongoing uncertainty in the economy and the current practice of many firms of holding off on investing.
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Ulster Bank's chief economist Richard Ramsey (inset) said while new car sales appeared to lead Northern Ireland's economic recovery back in 2014, they have gone nowhere since then.
"This is despite an employment boom and wider economic recovery," he said.
"New car sales, traditionally viewed as a key barometer of consumer confidence, have been at best flat or falling in each of the last four years. Clearly this is not a ringing endorsement of consumer confidence."
The economist said the number of new cars sold each week during 2018 was 90 down on 2014 and 300 fewer compared with the 2007 weekly average.
Mr Ramsey said, overall, new car sales here are 24% down on the 2007 high.
By contrast sales in England are on a par with 2007, while Scotland and Wales are only 7% and 9% down on the pre-downturn peak period.
He said the figures conceal the contrasting fortunes between certain manufacturers.
The Volkswagen Golf is the most popular new car here for 2019 to date with 191 sold, just ahead of the ever popular Ford Fiesta (182).
Hatchbacks and smaller model SUVs remain the biggest sellers in car showrooms here.
However, Mr Ramsey has said local car dealers remain increasingly reliant on the "very buoyant" Motability market.
"Without growth in this sector the underlying picture for new car sales and the health of the local consumer appears to be much worse," he said.
"Labour market conditions remain supportive for consumer spending, with employment at record levels and wage growth exceeding inflation," he continued.
"However, the purchasing power of many working-age welfare benefits continues to fall as the multi-year freeze continues.
"Northern Ireland has a much higher proportion of its working-age population reliant on welfare benefits than the UK average.
"It is also worth remembering that Northern Ireland has the highest levels of unsecured consumer debt in the UK," he said.
"This debt legacy will continue to act as a drag on consumer spending, particularly if the Northern Ireland economy weakens in 2019/2020 as is expected."