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Monday, December 31, 2012

Taking the Taxpayers out of General Motors

Ruggles – 12/26/2012
What many stockholders and taxpayers had feared, had Mitt Romney won the recent Presidential election, is coming true anyway. The taxpayers (U. S. Treasury) are quickly being taken out of their remaining General Motors ownership BEFORE the positive impact of the many new and exciting redesigned GM products to be introduced in the next few months can have the chance to boost retained earnings and share price. Waiting another 18 to 24 months could reduce or eliminate the loss that will be taken on the original taxpayer investment.
Having recently arranged for an $11 billion line of credit, and with about $41 billion in available cash and credit, GM is buying the stock back directly from the U.S. Treasury. At least buying back stock directly from Treasury is probably much better than dumping the stock on the open market, thereby diluting the share value and causing the stock price to drop even further. At least that is this stockholder’s point of view.
“Car Czar” Steve Rattner describes the buy back as “welcome news.” I’m not so sure. He goes on to write in the New York Times:
“For General Motors, the separation will conclusively remove the appellation of “Government Motors,” a stigma that the Company had argued affected the buying decisions of a meaningful segment of consumers.”
The divorce will ultimately also liberate G.M. from a number of government-imposed restrictions, importantly including those relating to executive compensation. These restrictions adversely affected G.M.’s ability to recruit and retain talent. Now, compensation decisions will be made by the company’s board of directors, just as they are in every other public company in America.”
As an observation, once GM rids itself of taxpayer ownership, GM execs can also resume the use of corporate jets. And we know how car business execs hate to fly commercial.
Others might say, GM has traded the appellation of “Government Motors” for another appellation, “The Car Company on which the taxpayers lost billions.” Rattner himself estimates the loss will come in at about $14 billion. Other estimates are higher.
The taxpayers should pay $14 - $20 billion so GM execs can go back to their spendthrift ways, when waiting 18 months or so would have given the stock the opportunity to rebound based on the recovering economy and an almost complete makeover of their product line? Not in my world. While this writer is NOT a professional stock picker, many folks look to Forbes for financial advice. A December 10 article in Forbes recommended “Roll with GM for 2013,” and gave compelling reasons why.
Others investment experts have weighed in on the subject and most have recommended buying GM stock for 2013, despite the attempt from some naysayers to float a rumor predicting a near term bankruptcy from GM. Of course, these columns appeared before the stock buyback announcement. And the naysayers ignored facts, while misinterpreting others, to create their false assertions.

Ex GM CEO Ed Whitacre was shown the door after he claimed in a national television commercial that GM had repaid its government loans. This was word parsing at its worst, as GM had only returned unused loans it didn’t need. The commercial implied, even though it did not specifically state, that GM was no longer in hock to the government and U.S. taxpayers, which was certainly not true. Some might argue that GM is using tax payer money to buy back taxpayer stock, a move similar to the claim that sank Whitacre.

What would another 18 to 24 months hurt? The President won his second term. What can the political pressure be? Why not give the stock the chance to improve? Is GM actually claiming that the cap on compensation is why they have had high velocity executive churn since the restructuring?

Has the government been “heavy handed” in its ownerships of GM, except for the jets and executive compensation? Recalling the previous bailout of Chrysler in the 1980s, Lee Iacocca chafed under the government supervision he had to live with during that era, ESPECIALLY the one that kept his jet grounded. In addition, the Feds were pushing Chrysler to divest itself of its truck division. All it took was for Ronald Reagan to make a crack to Iacocca at a Statue of Liberty restoration event about how Iacocca should be grateful that Carter was in the White House, and not Reagan, when the bailout was approved and signed, and the Chrysler CEO was more than incensed. He took a huge risk and paid the Feds off early, forgoing over $300 million in interest savings to do so. Iacocca put Chrysler at risk from a cash position perspective, even though the gamble ultimately paid off, but he saved the truck division, which has been the largest source of profits for Chrysler since. And he got his jet back and stuck it to Reagan. So is it ego or legitimate business considerations driving this current GM stock buyback move?
More Rattner:
“In a perfect world, I would not be a seller of G.M. stock at this moment. For one thing, the company is still completing the reworking of its sluggish management processes in order to achieve faster and better decisions and lower costs.”
For another, G.M.’s financial problems slowed its development of new products during 2008 and 2009. Now, a passel of shiny new models offering great promise is about to hit showrooms.”
And in my view, G.M. stock remains undervalued, trading at about 7 times its projected 2013 earnings, compared with nearly 13 for the stock market as whole.”
I think the move is driven by GM ego and arrogance, a really bad sign, and is NOT in the best interests of the U.S. taxpayer. This does not change the fact that while the auto sector restructuring was not conceived and executed perfectly, on balance what was accomplished will be considered a feat by economic historians. The cost to have NOT done the restructuring is incalculable, and most certainly many times more costly than a measly $20 billion. Depression or “moral hazard?” That was the choice. And the “perfect can’t be the enemy of the good.” In my mind, this premature stock buyback adds unnecessary tarnish to an otherwise laudatory endeavor.