GM global sales plunge

No. 1 U.S. automaker sees weakness in U.S. demand spreading to overseas markets where sales had been strong.

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By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- General Motors reported sharply lower global sales as weakness in the nation's leading automaker's domestic sales spread to overseas markets.

GM (GM, Fortune 500) said that overall sales were down 11.4% worldwide in the third quarter compared to the same period a year earlier.

That was a much steeper decline than the 2.9% drop seen in first half of the year.

European sales, which had been up 2.8% in the first half of the year, plunged 12% in the quarter, while the Asian Pacific region saw sales slow to a 2.6% growth rate from nearly 10% growth in the first half of the year.

North America, GM's home market, had already been weak, with sales down 15.3% in the first half of the year, but its sales weakened even further in the third quarter, dropping nearly 19% compared to a year earlier.

Total global sales in the third quarter were 2.1 million, bringing year-to-date global sales to 6.7 million.

"Obviously the third quarter saw a tremendous snowballing effect," said Mike DiGiovanni, GM's chief global forecaster.

Auto analysts said the sales numbers were not a surprise, given the growing weakness in global auto markets.

"I was concerned it could actually be worse than forecasts, so the fact that they came in near forecasts is a good thing," said Kim Korth, president of automotive-consulting firm IRN.

Korth said it's pretty clear that the fourth quarter will have very large declines for most of the global automakers, and the weakness is likely to continue for some time.

"We would look for the first quarter of '09 to probably be the bottom, then a gradual improvement in the rest of '09," she said. "But we won't get back to anywhere near normal levels until 2010.

There were some bright spots around the globe for GM. It saw a solid 4.3% jump in sales in China, even as industrywide sales there declined, allowing it to pick up market share. China has become an increasingly important market for GM, one which accounts for more than one in ten vehicles it sells worldwide.

It also saw double-digit sales gains and improved market share in some other key emerging markets, such as Russia and Brazil.

But in much of the globe GM saw declines in market share, as it posted steeper declines than the industry as a whole or posted weaker gains in the regions not yet hit by the sales slump, such as Latin America.

The only region where GM picked up market share was Asia-Pacific, and that was due primarily to the to the jump in sales in China. Its market share in Asia-Pacific outside of China was only narrowly higher.

The decline in sales also put GM further behind rival Toyota Motor (TM) in the race to be the world's largest automaker. Toyota posted third-quarter sales of 2.24 million vehicles, about 6% above GM's total, though down 4% from its year-ago figures.

Toyota saw its U.S. sales plunge 17.5% in the quarter, in what is now the Japanese automaker's largest market.

Toyota's year-to-date sales are essentially flat compared to a year earlier. With the weakness now seen in global markets, the Japanese automaker is poised to have the first decline in annual sales since it became a global automaker.

But because Toyota's sales have held up better than GM's this year, it is poised to capture the title of the world's No. 1 automaker that it narrowly missed in 2007, when final sales fell 3,101 short of GM's total. Through the first nine months of the year, its sales are nearly 400,000 vehicles, or about 6%, ahead of GM. To top of page

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