(Reuters) - U.S. auto sales in December are expected to top 13 million on an annual rate for the fourth consecutive month, indicating uncertainty about the economy has not slowed the industry down, J.D. Power and Associates and LMC Automotive said on Thursday.
They forecast the annual selling rate for new cars in December at 13.4 million, up from 12.5 million in December 2010.
They expect 2011 industry sales to finish at 12.7 million vehicles, up from 11.6 million in 2010. J.D. Power and LMC still expect 2012 sales of 13.8 million vehicles.
"For the third straight time, light-vehicle sales are posting strong selling rates at the close of the year," LMC Senior Vice President Jeff Schuster said in a statement. "Next year, the automotive industry will look to build upon the strong finish to 2011, but the real test in 2012 will be weathering a summer selling slowdown and posting a full year of a progressive recovery."
U.S. auto sales have been trending higher since June, despite the still-weak employment and housing markets.
In an encouraging sign for industry profitability, the sales pace in November hit a two-year high despite lower spending on discounts by the automakers compared with a year earlier.
J.D. Power and LMC expect that trend to continue in December, with total average incentive spending off 10 percent from 2010 at $2,700 per vehicle.
On a retail basis, the research firms expect industry sales to top 1 million vehicles for the first time since August 2009, when the U.S. government was running the "cash for clunkers" trade-in incentive program. Fleet sales are expected to rise 1 percent.
Automakers are scheduled to report December U.S. auto sales on January 4.
(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)