January's dismal numbers for Chevy Volt sales may give a clue as to how successful (or not) President Obama will be in reaching his goal of having a million electric vehicles (EVs) on American roads within the next few years, a goal that is increasingly becoming unlikely. It also gives us a glimpse into a bizarre strategy General Motors has had by focusing so strongly on plug-in cars while they lose market share elsewhere. The numbers are in, and GM can proudly say that they are the market leader in an insignificant field with a paltry 1,140 Volts sold in January. The best selling passenger car on the road, the Toyota Camry, sold 31,897 during the month, giving an indication of how illogical GM's misguided focus has been.
A watchdog for the government's bailout program, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), has hit the US Treasury Department with a hard combo of critique regarding some of the Administration's actions since pumping billions of taxpayer dollars into bailed-out companies like General Motors and Ally Financial (formerly known as GMAC). SIGTARP issued a report lambasting Treasury for allowing excessive pay for executives at GM, Ally Financial and AIG and followed that with statements that scrutinized Treasury's continued refusal to exit its stake in Ally Financial, which is currently 74% owned by the government.
There are a couple of little-noticed news stories on General Motors that belie the success narrative that portrays GM as a robust and growing corporation that is rewarding its workers around the globe. Both stories revolve around GM's South American operations, one involving injured Colombian GM workers who allegedly lost their jobs after being hurt at work and who are now on hunger strikes; the other centers on a strike by Brazilian GM workers who are protesting job cuts there.
I recently came across a report written by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which estimated the cost to taxpayers for "federal policies to promote (aka subsidize) the manufacture and purchase of electric vehicles (EVs)." The piece also predicts the short-term benefits of the subsidies and includes the effects of rising federal requirements for fuel economy (known as CAFE) standards. The outlook is that federal subsidies will cost taxpayers $7.5 billion over the next few years for little or no benefit (even when including the impact of CAFE) to total gas consumption or emissions.
General Motors finished 2012 with a 17.9% market share in the US and is expected to repeat the performance in 2013 according to a Bloomberg report. The number is at the lowest point it has been since 1924. So what is behind the dismal numbers at GM that sees the company performing at 88 year lows?
The final tally is in for 2012 Chevy Volt sales. The good news (which is what most headlines will trumpet) is that sales for General Motors' flagship green vehicle tripled from 2011's paltry 7,671 to a slightly less paltry 23,461 in 2012. The bad news is that the number is almost half of GM's sales goal of 45,000 in 2012 for the Volt. The further bad news is that the Volt has so little demand in most regions that some dealerships are refusing to pay for required tools to repair the vehicles and are choosing to cease selling the vehicles instead.
General Motors moved quickly to complete its buyback of 200 million shares from the US Treasury Department before year end. It is a welcome sign that the Obama Administration is finally beginning to exit taxpayers' GM stake, a move that could have been made a year and a half ago when share price was closer to $30. While some felt it was never the place of Government to gamble taxpayer money on Wall Street by market timing the exit of Treasury's GM stake, others argued that taxpayers would be better served by waiting until GM share price rose to at least over the $33 IPO price of two years ago.
Let's all rejoice! The Treasury Department is finally beginning to unload the taxpayers' stake in General Motors after a three and a half year stint of government involvement in the company. While the decision to get taxpayers out of the private sector is the correct one, the move is hardly a cure-all for what ails GM. And despite reports to the contrary, this does not bring closure to all groups that were involved in the unprecedented intrusion of government into the private sector that saw politically-powerful groups like the UAW receive favorable treatment over other classes.
It would appear that there is a bit of a Mexican standoff regarding the sale of General Motors stock by the three major holders. The US government (aka taxpayers), the UAW and the Canadian government have a combined ownership stake in GM of about 50%. If any of these three were to dump their shares on the market, the remaining holders will see a drop in the value of their shares due to the dilutive effect of the new shares hitting the market. Recent stories regarding the mindset of the Canadian government reveal that they will mirror the market-timing philosophy of the US government by hanging on to their stake. The decision may be driven by closed door meetings with US Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner.
General Motors is making more ridiculous claims on the Chevy Volt by flooding the web with stories of how 100 million electric miles have been driven since the Volt's much-hyped inception. Let's put the boasting in perspective. In the two plus years that it took for Volt drivers to put on 100 million miles, gas-powered vehicles logged over 5 TRILLION miles in the US. It would take only 5,000 cars traveling 10,000 miles a year to log 100 million miles in two years. The Volt has fallen far short of sales goals and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars in subsidies to reach the much-publicized but unimpressive milestone. So, what's the net reduction in gas usage in the US as a result of the Volt's accomplishment? Less than .002%.