Five things that should worry General Motors stakeholders
The General Motors logo is seen on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Jan. 12, 2009. (AP / Paul Sancya, File)
Published Saturday, December 15, 2012 7:00AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, April 20, 2013 10:32AM EDT
A top official in the Ontario Government has suggested that it is time for the federal and provincial governments to sell their stake in General Motors Corp. Really?
Ontario’s finance minister believes so, reports the Globe and Mail, noting that the two government combined hold shares equal to about 9.0 percent of GM. That’s what taxpayers got when in 2009 they contributed $10.8 billion to the GM bailout.
"I just don't think governments should be buying and holding stocks in private-sector companies," Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan told the newspaper, while adding that there are “certain restrictions on how many (shares) we can move at once and so on, but the sooner we're out of the stock the better."
If the two Canadian governments sell their shares now, they’ll do so at a great loss, so do to so at this point would be foolish and irresponsible. As the Globe notes, the value of the 140 million common shares and 16.1 million preferred shares held by the two governments was at $3.5 million at the end of September. Despite the minister’s philosophical objections to ownership – objections shared by me and a lot of taxpayers – taxpayers should remain patient investors.
The fact of the matter is, GM’s share price is not going to jump until the company starts delivering more good news than bad. GM may be highly profitable (more on that later), but a mounting pile of woes should by now have gotten the attention of investors and employees and dissuaded them from the wisdom of divesting until the company fixes itself – or is jolted into doing so by any number of internal and external forces.
As I look at GM today, here are five things that should worry stakeholders, followed by a few observations on GM’s future. It will be time to sell when GM has addressed these five major issues in a positive way:
No. 1: A glut of Silverado and Sierra pickups.
GM last week said it had a 139-day supply of the full-sized pickups on Nov. 30, Bloomberg reports. Auto makers generally like to have about 60 days' worth of supply on dealer lots. GM had been urging dealers to stock up on pickups in anticipation of a factory shutdown to change over to a redesigned 2014 Silverado and Sierra. The latter are due in the summer, notes Automotive News. Now GM, adds the industry publication, is piling on incentives to move the metal.
Take note that for accounting purposes, GM, like other car companies, books a sale the minute a vehicle leaves the factory. So GM’s results are at risk of being skewed by excessive production of its usually very profitable full-size pickups. The point here is that GM must be more disciplined about controlling production – about aligning production with real demand. If not, bloated inventories necessitate profit-siphoning incentives.
No. 2: Europe.
What a mess. In releasing its most recent quarterly results, GM said it lost nearly half a billion dollars in Europe for the third quarter and expects to lose $1.5 to $1.8 billion for the full year, before interest and taxes (all figures in U.S. dollars).
Yes, GM earned $1.5 billion or 89 cents a share in the third quarter and as The Detroit News reports, the company did beat Wall Street expectations by 60 cents a share for the quarter. But the fact is, GM’s European business has been a financial drag on the company for decades. Here is the single most important question facing GM today: when will the company fix its European mess?
No 3: Speaking of profits…
Three years after emerging from bankruptcy, GM remains far less profitable than archrival Ford Motor Co. in the bread-and-butter North American market, points out Automotive News. In its third-quarter earnings conference call, GM’s finance chief for North America, Chuck Stevens, offered up a list of reasons why the company’s pretax profit margin of 7.8 per cent in North America lagged Ford's 11.9 per cent., notes the industry publication.
One of the biggest issues has to do with those immensely profitable full-size pickups, as well as SUVs (sport-utility vehicles). These are the company’s oldest products – years older than the Ford F-Series and Chrysler’s Ram. Dated hardware is almost never as profitable as the new stuff.
GM, added Automotive News, is addressing this matter by moving to global platforms to cut engineering and purchasing costs and speed up product development – all of which lead to fatter returns. By 2018, GM plans to have 90 percent of its sales volume globally from vehicles made on about 14 "core" vehicle platforms, which is “roughly on a par with Ford and Volkswagen Group.” Get moving, GM; the competition isn’t waiting around for you to catch up.
No. 4: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu and by extension of future GM products.
The highly influential publication Consumer Reports rates the 2013 Malibu Eco 21st of 28 sedans. This is the restyled and re-engineered Malibu, not the old 2012. The Eco version has a mild hybrid power train and while launched in the U.S in the spring, the new Malibu was only recently introduced to Canada. CR, notes Automotive News, plans to evaluate the 2013 Malibu with the 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine in its February issue.
But even before that review appears, GM will be fully involved in “hurrying to complete a mid-cycle refresh of the midsize sedan, 18 months after the Malibu launch, CEO Dan Akerson told Automotive News. Why? Soft sales and unflattering reviews. This sort of product misstep is worrisome and should not happen at the “new” GM.
No 5: PSA Peugeot Citroen and any future alliance.
Earlier this year, GM paid $400 million for a 7.0 per cent stake in PSA Peugeot Citroen, the struggling French auto maker. Plans for a deeper tie-up have been halted, notes www.just-auto.com, citing the troubles at PSA. GM’s history with alliances is not a good one, so this is reason for GM stakeholders to rejoice.
A little history: GM’s 20-year attempt to fix Saab ended in bankruptcy in 2010. GM spent $4.4 billion getting into and out of a five-year partnership with Fiat. GM has had tie-ups with Subaru and Suzuki and Isuzu and each one ended rather badly, too. GM should vow to go it alone for now and evermore. Leave the alliances to companies that are good at them.
Now a few weeks ago, Shikha Dalmia wrote at Reason.com that it is a foregone conclusion that ”taxpayers are never going to recover their ‘investment’ in Government Motors.” But I’m optimistic despite the worrisome signs.
Yes, as Automotive News suggests, GM needs to do more to “whack away at its cost structure” and focus on the hard work associated with "taking complexity out of the business," as CEO Akerson puts it. But there’s an easy answer here, though implementing it is hard slogging: focus on the products, the new models and a steady succession of them.
At the company’s most recent annual meeting, Akerson said the company is doing that while also acknowledging the cultural problem at GM. He spoke of the GM’s “old, internally focused, consensus-driven, and overly complicated” culture, the one “being reinvented brick by brick.”
From the outside GM appears in in desperate need of working faster and harder at fixing its culture and by doing so, improve its products and the speed at which they come to dealerships. Akerson, to his credit, has given us a scorecard by which we can measure progress.
That is, GM is embarking on a huge global product offensive. Over the next 12 to 18 months, GM, notes Automotive News, will introduce redesigns of its biggest money makers, including the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups and its four big SUVs.
"We're very aware of how important this launch is," Akerson told the publication, referring to the pickups. "How well we execute is critically important."
Next year GM will also launch the next Chevrolet Corvette, the redesigned Chevrolet Impala, the new Buick Encore and the next generation of GM's mid-sized pickups, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. As Akerson noted at the company’s annual meeting this past summer, by the end of 2013, 70 per cent of GM's U.S. nameplates will be new or redesigned. Chevrolet alone is readying 13 new or redesigned models for launch next year.
As these launches proceed and GM continues its reinvention, stakeholders should look for the kind of top-to-bottom urgency that is the hallmark of the most successful companies. There is no time for GM to waste, as its many challenges suggest.