In the second quarter of last year, I looked at the sharp decline caused by the pandemic in the data for light vehicle miles traveled in the United States. If you missed that column, or if your memory needs to be refreshed, I suggested this decline in miles traveled could affect demand for motor vehicles in the coming months. I further suggested the pandemic might permanently impact the number of commuter miles traveled, and this might cause a shift in the number and type of motor vehicles purchased for years to come.
As a plastics industry analyst, I have a deep and abiding interest in the trends in motor vehicle demand. There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is the motor vehicle industry is a huge end market for plastics products. Rising demand for motor vehicles drives — don't miss the pun there — demand for plastics parts, molds and tooling, and plastics machinery. This fact alone is enough to drive — that's the last one — my interest in the auto industry.
But it goes much deeper than this. Motor vehicle demand, combined with miles traveled, has a substantial impact on the market for energy products. And the trends in the prices for energy products correspond closely with the trend in the price of plastic resins. Therefore, processors who do not manufacture auto parts are still subject to fluctuations in demand for crude oil and miles traveled.
And finally, the U.S. auto industry is the bellwether indicator for the entire American manufacturing sector. If you ever find yourself pondering supply chain issues, tax policy, labor disputes, tariffs, climate change, the skills gap, the employment data or what it really means to have something that is Made in America, then you might just be a budding auto industry analyst yourself.
I do not have the space to explain completely just how important the auto industry is for our nation's economic, political and psychological well-being, but I think I you get the gist of my argument. The question before us now is whether a decline in miles traveled correlates with a decline in the number of vehicles purchased, especially in the long term.
One line on the chart is a graph of the data in total sales of autos and light trucks, and it is encouraging. The precipitous drop in the second quarter of last year was followed by a V-shaped recovery. In the second half of last year and the first two months of 2021, the data hovered just below the pre-pandemic level of 17 million units. But in a surprise move, the total for this March jumped up to a robust 17.7 million units on an annualized basis. This is the highest monthly figure in three and a half years.