Data released by LMC Automotive shows that the global light vehicle market improved by around 3% in March to hit an annualised selling rate of approximately 91m units a year.

LMC said that the gain was underpinned by greater momentum for Chinese vehicle sales while West European car markets also continued their sustained recovery. While the selling rate cooled a little in the US, the outlook there remains solid, LMC said.

North America – solid outlook

March US light vehicle sales totalled 1,595,000 units, implying a selling rate of 16.5m units a year and a 3.3% year-on-year contraction. On a raw unit basis, approximately 50,000 units more were sold in March 2016 relative to March 2015; however, given that March 2016 had two additional selling days than the previous year, the gain is less impressive. OEM incentives for March 2016 were up 6% year-on-year while average transaction prices were relatively flat. Economic factors remain supportive with low interest rates, high consumer confidence, low fuel prices, stable unemployment rate and rising labour force participation, LMC notes.

Canadian light vehicle sales for March registered at approximately 175,000 units, representing a 9.3% increase from 2015's record March. 2016 has had three consecutive months of +9% Year-on-year growth.

Europe – recovery continues in West, Russia bottoming

Light vehicle sales in Western Europe continued to grow in March, an expansion which, when measured in year-on-year terms, has lasted for over 30 months. Record market strength in the UK has been augmented by strong recovery in Italy, in particular, but also in other markets. LMC expects a full-year gain in 2016 of almost 7%, but notes that it is being cautious and the gain could be stronger.

Sales volume in Central and Eastern Europe continued to decline – down by over 3% in March – though there are signs of a bottom being reached. Russia has led the market downwards and, while the year-on-year decline may have been less severe there than in the recent past (at -10%), the weak 1.5 m units a year selling rate defines a market still struggling with major and persistent underlying problems.

China – still robust

Advance data indicates that sales in China picked up in March. The annualised selling rate rose to 26.5m units a year, compared with 24.5m units a year in February. The March rate is, however, still below the record high of over 29m units a year in both December and November. Car sales continued to benefit from the temporary tax cut on smaller-engine models, while LCV sales continued to decline, reflecting a slowing economy.

LMC noted that China's financial markets have stabilised after the volatility at the beginning of this year, with both the yuan and the stock markets edging up recently. The official manufacturing PMI returned to positive territory in March, suggesting that perhaps the economy is also stabilising. Rising housing prices are another positive factor for consumers' willingness to buy new vehicles.

Japan sluggish; Korea benefits from tax break

In Japan, the March selling rate of 4.6m units a year was little changed from February. On a year-on-year basis, however, sales declined by nearly 10% in March, dragged down by falling stock prices, the strengthening yen, and an uncertain global economic outlook.

The South Korean market has regained momentum, thanks to the extension of the temporary tax cut on vehicles (through June 2016). Commercial vehicle sales were also buoyant, ahead of the implementation of the stricter emission standard for diesel-powered light trucks in September 2016.

South America – bright spots in the gloom

Brazil posted a better-than-expected 2.2m units a year selling rate in both February and March, compared with the recent low point of 1.85m units in January. LMC noted, however, that it is too early to declare that the market has stabilised, given the escalating political crisis and the deepening recession.

Argentina, too, recorded a stronger-than-expected annualised  selling rate of 667,000 units a year in March. Investor confidence has improved significantly, with the news that the government has reached an agreement with the "holdout" creditors from the country's 2001 default