A veteran auto analyst said rising truck sales should enable 2016 share price gains at the top four U.S. automakers, particularly Ford (F) - Get Report  and General Motors (GM) - Get Report .

S&P Capital IQ analyst Efraim Levy said Ford, GM, FiatChrysler (FCAU) - Get Report and Toyota (TM) - Get Report should all benefit from the dual trend of rising truck (including utility vehicles) sales and of truck sales as a percentage of sales. Typically, truck sales provide automakers with higher margins than auto sales.

Levy has strong buys on Ford and GM, a buy on Toyota and a hold on Fiat Chrysler. "I find Ford and GM more attractive on valuation, on total return including dividends," he said in an interview.

"I think Toyota has currency issues and home market issues," he said. "Chrysler has more risk as they have to keep on investing in the business to make sure they continue to gain market share. But all four should benefit from favorable truck mix."

Despite steadily rising U.S. light-vehicle sales since 2009, auto stocks have generally been laggards.

On Tuesday, Ford shares closed at $12.42, down 14 cents. Shares are down 12% year to date and down 16% over the past five years. GM closed at $29.38, down 25 cents. GM shares are down 14% this year and down 15% over five years.

Meanwhile, the S&P 500 is down 6% year to date and up 47% for five years.

Chrysler closed Friday at $6.31, down 22 cents. Shares are down 31% this year but up 4% over five years. Toyota closed down Tuesday at $105.62, down $1.07. Shares are down 14% this year but up 17% over five years.

Why have auto shares been in decline despite rising sales? "The main reason is concerns about peaking volume in the U.S.," Levy said. "But I think {automakers} have been pretty diligent about matching production to demand and not making mistakes with too much in incentives."

International concerns have also hurt the stocks, but Levy noted that he expects higher demand for autos in China, the world's largest auto market.

In January, light-truck sales including vans rose 6.5% and the top three-selling U.S. vehicles were the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram pickup trucks. Light-truck sales accounted for 80% of Fiat Chrysler sales, 70% of Ford sales, 68% of GM sales and 52% of Toyota sales.

In 2015, U.S. light-vehicle sales rose 5.7% to a record 17.5 million. Like the U.S. economy, light-vehicle sales have been steadily improving since 2009, when they stood at 10.3 million, a 27-year low. The previous record was 17.3 million sales in 2000.

In 2015, truck and utility vehicles accounted for 9.9 million sales or 57% of the light-vehicle sales total, up from 53% in 2014. Levy expects the share to be as much as 59% this year.

"We believe new and refreshed trucks, combined with lower gasoline prices and increased housing activity, should propel the shift from small cars and more fuel efficient vehicles to more profitable trucks," Levy wrote in a note.


This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.