The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) faced some of its heaviest criticism to date last week on Capitol Hill. Hearings addressing the failings of the agency were headed by Senator Claire McCaskill and centered around NHTSA's part in General Motors' deadly ignition switch recall delay. The death toll (currently at 20) continues to rise as a result of GM and NHTSA allowing the dangerously defective vehicles to remain on the roads for about 10 years from when the problem was first recognized. While the criticism of NHTSA is well-deserved, it is past time for harsh words to be accompanied by an overhaul of the agency.
It's official. Chrysler has now completely merged with Italian auto maker, Fiat. It had taken a bit over five years for Fiat to gain total control of the bailed out, once-American Chrysler Corporation. Back in June of 2009, President Obama gifted (payment was made in the form of "technology") an initial 20% stake in Chrysler to Fiat as part of his orchestrated auto bailout process. Fiat parlayed that into full ownership and is now showing its gratitude to the American taxpayers who helped fund the deal by relocating Chrysler's headquarters to London; a move which will lessen the company's corporate tax rate.
It has now been over six months since General Motors finally recalled vehicles with a known deadly ignition switch defect. The defect was attributed with being the cause of accidents that resulted in at least 13 deaths. The Wall Street Journal now reports that only 34% of the recalled vehicles have been fixed.
GM has taken $3.4 billion in charges and losses on the past two earnings' reports for all of their recalls, despite the fact that most of the recalled vehicles have yet to be repaired. The most questionable part of GM's charges come from the first quarter's earnings' report.
General Motors continues to deny that it has a safety problem with brake lines that are prone to corrosion in as few as five or six years. Thousands of owners of GM trucks and SUVs have complained of failing brakes due to brake lines bursting from the rust problem. One of these owners, Joe Palumbo from Pennsylvania, has made it a quest (see his website here) to expose the safety defect, thus far to little avail. GM's latest response to Mr. Palumbo includes an implied admission that the company has been using inferior quality brake lines in its vehicles.
General Motors has yet another unresolved safety concern with its vehicles. This one involves trucks with anti-lock braking system (ABS) problems. The ABS in some GM trucks engages at slow speeds in dry conditions, leading to a loss of braking and increased stopping distances. Once again, this is a known problem at GM, as they have recalled vehicles previously from earlier model years with the same problem.
It has been two years since General Motors admitted that there was little demand for the Chevy Volt (as reported here) due to there being "no plug-in market." Their answer was to "create market" to drive sales for the politically popular but economically-nonviable Volt. GM manipulated sales for the Volt through the use of subsidized leases at a time when President Obama's favorite, green wonder-car was being criticized for low sales as it failed to live up to the early hype.
General Motors reported earnings today for the 2nd quarter of 2014. The early prognosis is not good with share price falling after the report. While it is difficult for the Mom and Pop investor to sort through GM's myriad of charges, special items and various smoke and mirrors, there are some key take-aways that give a glimpse of GM's financial health. Primarily, debt continues to grow at the company, now exceeding $40 billion while earnings are propped up by special items.
On Thursday, July 17, General Motors CEO Mary Barra will be back as a witness on Capitol Hill, this time before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who has been an outspoken critic of GM's response to the deadly ignition switch defect, chairs the Subcommittee. Indeed, the hearing is titled, "Examining Accountability and Corporate Culture in Wake of the GM Recalls." Another subcommittee member, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), has been even more outspoken. Both deserve credit for seeking to make GM accountable, especially since some members on both House and Senate committees have pulled their punches on Barra and GM.
Is General Motors trying to make lemonade out of lemons? In the case of the company's recent string of lemon recalls, there seems to be a strategy to increase showroom traffic by issuing recalls for only those vehicles which do not require high costs to repair. GM CEO, Mary Barra, gave a hint at this strategy during last quarter's earnings conference call.