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Data: J.D. Power; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios 

U.S. auto sales, which tanked at the end of March amid widespread stay-at-home orders, have been steadily recovering, fueled by strong demand for trucks and generous incentives like 0% loans and deferred payments.

Why it matters: As economists debate the shape of a U.S. economic recovery, auto sales could be an important barometer. The auto industry represents about 3% of GDP, and a healthy rebound in car and truck sales could be encouraging for other consumer sectors.

What's happening: The week ending May 10 was the sixth consecutive week of improving vehicle sales at auto dealerships, according to analysts at research firm J.D. Power.

  • Between May 4 and May 10, dealership sales were down 26% from J.D. Power's pre-virus forecast, an improvement of four percentage points from the week ending May 3.
  • It's a far cry from the 59% plunge seen during the week ending March 29, when the pandemic was just beginning to shut down parts of the country. In some virus hot spots, like New York and Detroit, auto sales came to a virtual stop during the last week in March, according to J.D. Power.

Driving the news: With consumers confined to their homes, carmakers have bent over backwards to accommodate shoppers whose leases are expiring or who need to buy cars in a hurry.

Between the lines: Pent-up demand and big incentives account for much of the sales recovery.

  • Some brands are offering 0% interest rates on 7-year loans, and waiving payments for buyers experiencing financial distress.

Flashback: After 9/11, GM's "Keep America Rolling" plan — 0% interest on all cars and trucks — jump-started U.S. auto sales and the entire economy.

Yes, but: incentives can be an addictive drug.

  • If carmakers get too aggressive in their efforts to stimulate demand, they could cripple their pricing power for years to come, writes Boston Consulting Group's Karen Lellouche Tordjman in a new report.
  • After the global financial crisis of 2008, carmakers doled out big discounts, kicking off a price war that hurt the industry's profit margins for years, she wrote.

What to watch: The biggest worry now is low inventory levels in many parts of the country.

  • Factories stopped production in mid-March and are just now starting to make cars again. The ramp-up will be slow to ensure worker safety.
  • GM and others say they'll focus on replenishing dealer stocks in markets where sales have been strongest, like Texas and Arizona.

The bottom line: It's clear the auto industry's 10-year boom has ended, but the landing might not be as rough as many had feared.

  • J.D. Power is now forecasting auto sales of 13.5 million to 14.5 million for 2020, down from their previous forecast of 16.8 million.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
Aug 11, 2020 - Economy & Business

Adobe: E-commerce growth slows as stores reopen

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

E-commerce sales are still way up compared to a year ago in the U.S., but growth moderated in July as more traditional stores reopened, according to fresh data from Adobe.

Why it matters: Undoubtedly some of the shifts to online shopping will be permanent, but the numbers suggest that consumers want to do a certain amount of their buying in-person.

Updated 8 mins ago - Health

The coronavirus variants: What you need to know

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New variants of the coronavirus circulating globally appear to increase transmission and are being closely monitored by scientists.

Driving the news: The highly contagious variant B.1.1.7 originally detected in the U.K. could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March if no measures are taken to control the spread of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

10 mins ago - World

Abbas announces first Palestinian elections in 15 years

Abbas is 85 and in the 15th year of a 4-year term. Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas published a decree on Friday announcing the dates for parliamentary and presidential elections in the Palestinian Authority.

Why it matters: This is the first time in 15 years that such a decree has been published. The last presidential elections took place in 2005, with Abbas winning, and the last parliamentary elections took place in 2006, with Hamas winning.