By Stuart Burns
We are used to dire stories emanating from the automotive industry in Europe of late.
The swing from diesel engines has hit European producers hard, as the region had been heavily biased toward the economical but historically carbon particulate polluting oil burners.
Some manufacturers, like Jaguar Land Rover (TTM), were more heavily dependent on the sale of diesel engines than others and had relatively little to offer as an alternative. Big SUVs powered by petrol or electric engines have not been big sellers in Europe, so manufacturers' lineups have been limited.
Nevertheless, sales are down across the board.
Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) sales fell by 14.9%, Ford (F) by 6.6% and Volkswagen Group (OTCPK:VWAGY) by 6.4% last year, Reuters reported. Renault's (OTC:RNSDF) alliance partner Nissan (OTCPK:NSANY) also recorded a 24.7% decline, with new car registrations across the board recording a 4.6% fall in January.
It could be argued a mature market like Europe is going to face good years and bad - most consumers already own a car, and postponing a decision to replace it is a relatively easy one to make.
Consumers in faster-growing emerging markets exist in a different dynamic; as such, we are used to seeing strong year-on-year growth in places like China. But last year auto sales there suffered their first decline in nearly three decades, falling 4.1% from 2017 year to 23.7 million, according to the AFP.
This year has gotten worse, as sales of SUVs, minivans and sedans plunged 17.5% from a year earlier to 3.2 million in the first two months of 2019, according to the China Association of Auto Manufacturers. Total vehicle sales, including trucks and buses, fell 15% to 3.8 million units.
Painful as this has been for all suppliers, Chinese brands have fared the worst, falling 23% to 1.3 million units in January and February, debunking the theory that this is a backlash against Western brands due to the trade war.
Even SUVs, usually a bright spot for the industry, contracted 18.6% to 141,000, AFP reports. Only sales of pure-electric and hybrid vehicles, heavily promoted by Beijing with subsidies, rose this year (almost doubling to 148,000 units over a year ago).
It seems wherever subsidy goes, consumption follows.
The standout exception to Europe's woes is Norway, where one-third of all new car sales were electric last year, Reuters reports. Norway exempts battery-driven cars from most taxes and offers benefits such as free parking and charging points as it tries to drive a shift from diesel and petrol engines to an all-electric market by 2025.
The independent Norwegian Road Federation (NRF) was reported to have said that electric cars rose to 31.2% of all sales last year - from 20.8% in 2017 and just 5.5% in 2013 - while sales of petrol and diesel cars, not surprisingly, plunged.
Even the U.S. is posting poor new car sales.
General Motors (GM), the U.S.'s biggest automaker, sold 665,840 vehicles in the first three months of the year, down 7% from the same period in 2018. Fiat Chrysler was down 3% for the first quarter to 498,425 and Toyota (TM) down 5% to 543,716 units.
However, the U.S. has reasons to be more upbeat than elsewhere. Manufacturers point to consumer sentiment recovering in March and the other key drivers of auto sales like employment, wage growth and household balance sheets looking healthy. GM Chief Economist Elaine Buckberg noted the Fed's pause on interest rate hikes, which eases a headwind facing auto sales.
The combination of slowing global auto sales and the swift rise of electric - in markets outside the U.S., anyway - is posing challenges for established automakers as they strive to maintain earnings in a rapidly changing landscape.
Editor's Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.