NEW YORK – Retail transactions led the first-quarter sales rebound, despite auto makers cutting back on the record sales incentives that drove the U.S. market during the now-fading recession, says IHS senior principal automotive economist, George Magliano.

Growing availability of credit is helping stimulate sales, says Magliano, speaking here at the National Automobile Dealers Assn./IHS Automotive Forum held in conjunction with the New York International Auto Show opening to the media today.

Leasing also is back in a significant way as residual values have strengthened, the analyst adds.

That momentum will keep building, says Nariman Behravesh, IHS's chief economist, regardless of the natural disasters that have slowed the flow of automotive electronics and imports from Japanese car factories.

Some continued near-term supply disruptions are inevitable, he adds, but says Japan will recover from these shocks.

Behravesh says the world economy has rebounded from the worst recession of the post World War II era. “The U.S., in particular, has momentum in the recovery. But the emerging markets, especially China and India, lead the global expansion.”

Magliano says the U.S. used-vehicle market is hot, evidenced by low inventories, caused somewhat by plummeting new-vehicle inventories.

Sales of fullsize trucks and cross/utility vehicles have outsold cars during the market rebound, he notes, while transaction prices have improved and the model mix has become richer.

Still, Magliano has trimmed his 2011 U.S. sales forecast from 13.3 million units to 12.9 million because of the triple whammy of Japanese parts shortages, Middle East conflicts and rapidly escalating gasoline prices.

About 150,000 units of the forecast reduction is pegged to higher gasoline prices, and the analyst predicts soaring oil prices will reduce auto sales by 200,000 units annually.

However, the market will overcome the current crises and see sales volumes spurt to 14.7 million units next year and nearly 16 million units in 2013, he says.

The U.S. will be an early beneficiary of increasing Japanese output, as the auto industry overcomes the obstacles of the earthquake and tsunami. Lost Japanese volume is expected to end late in the third quarter, Magliano forecasts.

“Components for rebuild of lost volume will not emerge in abundant supply until the fourth quarter of 2011,” he says.

Honda will be the auto maker most adversely impacted, because it has many suppliers in the quake and radiation zone, Magliano says, adding the Detroit Three and European manufacturers are feeling the effects mostly in the supply of electronic components. Korean plants are insulated from the Japanese shocks, and China and India OEMs are even less affected.

Auto makers may see reduced margins, however, because climbing commodity prices will be difficult to pass on to car buyers, Magliano says.

Although credit is starting to loosen up in the U.S., there will be no return to “the Wild West days,” the IHS analyst says. Right now the market is living off of prime and near-prime consumers. When people get back to work, credit scores will go up.”

Magliano also forecasts that a 17 million-unit market will return eventually, as the U.S. population increases and employment rates rise.