Is automotive a growth industry?

General Motors CEO Dan Akerson says his biggest surprise since taking the job has been the growth potential of the auto industry.

Speaking at the Automotive News World Congress, he cited global light-vehicle sales that are expected to surpass 90 million units in 2014, up from less than 70 million in 2009.

“This is a growth industry,” Akerson said. “That surprised me.”

Richard Hilgert, an equity analyst at Morningstar of Chicago, disagrees.

In a report on the Detroit auto show and analysts’ briefings held in conjunction with the show, Hilgert noted: “Optimistic forecasters at this year’s auto show were convinced that industry sales volume would continue to annually grow at 10 percent for the foreseeable future, leading them to conclude that, by definition, automotive is a growth industry.”

He added: “We think this assessment goes too far.”

Yes, global new-vehicle sales grew about 12 percent in 2010 -- and are projected to grow 10 percent in 2011 -- but nearly half of that came from regions that were in a “cyclical recovery phase,” such as the United States and the major European countries, “not a secular growth phase,” he wrote.

“These automotive markets are saturated and will grow at rates that are more akin to their growth in population,” Hilgert wrote.

And, yes, he conceded, markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China have substantial growth potential.

But he’s not convinced.

“So is automotive a growth industry?” Hilgert wrote. “Just about as much as standing in your garage makes you a car, in our opinion. Rather, we view the industry as having substantial pockets of growth while other regions are in cyclical recovery; this combination should cause higher than normal increases in total global sales volume through at least 2015.”

(Hilgert’s point: The industry’s optimism is getting ahead of itself. Volume forecasts, he says, will get “frothier as we progress into early summer,” and when the industry then has to scale back, that will create “buying opportunities” in the stock market.)

What do you think? Should the automotive industry be considered a growth industry?

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