So, is the new GM a buy? Let's look at some facts. It has had four CEOs since Spring 2009. It has gone into and come out of Bankruptcy. And it's current chairman, Edward Whitacre Jr., tapped by the White House because of his extraordinary history of management and corporate governance, apparently is so checked out already, despite the fact that he has the job until the New Year, that he yammered to a reporter about details of GM's stock plans despite the fact that the company is in a Securities and Exchange Commission-imposed "quiet period." Oops.
"It's a little too early to say, but it is going to be somewhere in the $20 range ...$20 to $25, something like that would be my guess," Whitacre told Reuters. Reuters also quoted Whitacre as saying, "I can't say how much we'll sell, but I can say we'll have a successful IPO sometime in November." GM has had to distance itself from the comments of its own chairman.
While these facts don't necessarily inspire confidence, hold your judgement. Stock market investing can be an emotional game, especially for amateur individual investors. But it pays to look at stocks and the future with a more unemotional view.
How many amateurs bought shares in, say, auto parts companies like TRW or ArvinMeritor in the Spring of 2009 when the auto and parts companies looked headed over a cliff like crazed sheep. Very few. If they had, though, they would be cashing in gains today of 500% and 1300% respectively. Even Tesla Motors, which is more hype than reality to most informed observers, has seen a 15.5% gain since its IPO last June. Ford, since May 2009, has gained 140%.
Tesla aside, those who jumped into auto parts in early 2009 knew that short of bankruptcy these well-run companies would bounce back when auto sales bounced back.
And here is where it should get unemotional no matter how an investor may feel about government bailouts, whether the Chevy Volt is an innovation or a high-priced golf cart. The U.S.A runs on cars. We are a car culture. Say what you want about how much we need high-speed rail, we are drivers. The U.S. will probably sell about 11.7 million vehicles this year, which is lower than the 12.5 million rate at which we scrap vehicles. As vehicles people are holding on to longer than they want break down, the scrappage and sales rate will likely go up. By 2015, it is not unreasonable that we will see a selling rate that crowds 14 million to 15 million new vehicles a year.
GM, even with the way many people view its tax-payer ownership, is making decent money now at today's selling rate. That's right. As tough as things are now, GM is making good money. GM's debt has gone from $94.7 billion before bankruptcy to $17 billion. That's less than half of Ford's comparable debt. GM has cut its annual operating costs by $10.7 billion a year. It's market share has only dropped from 21% a year ago to 18% through September, despite shedding four of its brands – Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn and Saab.
Never mind how many Americans feel about GM. Consider that GM has a dominant position not only in the U.S., but in China, the fastest growing market in the world. And it will top 2 million in sales this year in a market that will be around 16 million-plus. GM is still the leader overall in pickup trucks in North America by virtue of adding up sales of Chevy and GMC branded trucks. Toyota and Nissan haven't been able to make a dent in that highly profitable category. As the economy comes back, and housing picks up again in the next few years, the light truck market will still be dominated by Ford and GM, with GM having the bigger market share.
The economies of the auto industry can be confounding. Sure GM lost tens of billions. But that was in large part because of the following math. Too many factories + too many lousy brands + too many employees making too much salary + too many rebates + too many mediocre cars = big losses. Here is another piece of the business. When a plant is only operating at only about 70-percent capacity you have losses. It varies by company, but break-even for a given plant might be when it is operating at 75-80% of capacity. Above that level, and the plant becomes like a printing press in a hurry. The profits mount fast.
Bottom line: The Chevy and Cadillac product lines have become top-drawer for the most part and getting far more consideration in a poor economy, combined with the weakness of Chrysler and the recall travails of Toyota. GMC has always been a profitable brand. And Buick is climbing despite the middling response from the automotive media to the new Buick Regal. The debt is incredibly low for a company with such big revenues and cash flow. And GM is getting back into the loan making business, which will make it easier for buyers to get credit. Some estimate GM has lost more than a point of market share because it can't get legitimate buyers qualified for credit at outside financial institutions.
In other words, GM is poised to make big profits in the next few years as we continue our addiction to driving. The cars we purchased in big numbers seven, eight and nine years ago are getting closer to 150,000 miles, and they will have to be replaced in larger numbers than is currently the case. Eighteen-percent of them, and possibly more, will be GM vehicles.
Before jumping in to GM's new stock when it becomes available, look coldly at the numbers and the company's prospects for making money, rather than how you might feel about tax-payer bailouts. You may still decide to pass on GM stock. But at least you won't say that you should've at least investigated.
David Kiley, an award winning journalist, covers the auto industry from Ann Arbor, MI. He has followed the industry for 25 years, and held posts including Detroit Bureau Chief for USA Today and senior correspondent for BusinessWeek. He is also the author of two books on the industry: Getting The Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall and Comeback of Volkswagen in America [John Wiley and Sons 2001], and Driven: Inside BMW, The Most Admired Car Company in the World [Wiley, 2004].
[Images: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty]