Retail Sales Drive General Motors to a Record August in China

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If the results from General Motors (NYSE: GM) are any indication, sales in China are trending as many had hoped they would. Detroit's largest automaker started off slow in China this year, but that was expected in the wake of the partial expiration of a purchase tax rebate in January, which pushed many buyers to act in late 2016 rather than wait. After that impact faded, though, GM's sales kicked into gear, and it just posted a record August sales result in the country. 

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Let's break down the details about GM's performance in China last month, and consider what investors should focus on ahead.

10,000 ft. view

GM's deliveries rose 12% to 328,425 units last month, driven by strong retail sales which were also up 12% year over year. Those gains were powered by Buick and Baojun, which each recorded their best ever August sales figures, and the Chevrolet marque posting a solid 21% sales gain. But one of its most compelling stories comes from the GM brand with the least volume in China: Cadillac.

Soaring sales

Take a quick glance at GM's year-to-date sales data through August in China, and Cadillac's year-over-year increase will jump out: It recorded an incredible 67% jump, from 64,489 units to 107,377 units. That was the highest gain of any brand under GM's umbrella this year. If you're keeping track, Cadillac's 51% increase in August was the brand's 18th consecutive month of double-digit growth.

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"Cadillac's strong lineup, unique brand philosophy, and premium customer experience are taking it to the next level of competition in China's luxury vehicle market," said Andreas Schaaf, Cadillac vice president and general director of SAIC-GM's Cadillac Division, in a press release. "Our goal is for Cadillac to become a top-tier player."

China's luxury automotive market is expected to surge in the years ahead, and becoming a top-tier player would help GM increase its top and bottom line in China going forward. It remains a step ahead of rival Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F), which has made substantial progress in a short time; Lincoln sales in China are up 94% year-to-date, but the marque has still clocked in with roughly one-third of Cadillac's volume. But sales of every Lincoln model grew in August, with the MKC, MKX and Navigator SUVs and crossovers rising by 62%, 46%, and 112% respectively.

On the road ahead

One trend that automakers believe will continue is the growing popularity of SUVs globally, especially in China. SUVs, with their heftier price tags and juicy margins, have helped boost GM's results this year. They remained the automaker's fastest growing segment, with demand surging 57%. Rising sales of SUVs and Cadillacs will be a nice one-two punch for profits as China's middle class continues to grow.

Something for investors to keep in mind in the near term is to take monthly auto sales reports from the country with a grain of salt, as they will likely be inflated compared to a normal year.

China's vehicle purchase tax is set to increase again, from 7.5% to 10% when the calendar flips to 2018 and the rest of the temporary government stimulus tax rebate expires. That's likely going to convince many people eyeing a vehicle purchase to act before January -- essentially pulling demand from 2018's first quarter into 2017's fourth. But one thing is clear: GM is doing well in China, and it's well positioned to benefit from the rising popularity of luxury vehicles and SUVs, which only adds to bullish arguments for the company's shares.

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Daniel Miller owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.