Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United Auto Workers union (UAW) was drawing up contingency plans to strike if upcoming negotiations with General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles do not satisfy UAW officials. The UAW is leveraging the good timing of the negotiations, which are occurring at the same time as the auto industry’s cyclical top.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO, Sergio Marchionne, has been pressing for a merger with General Motors. Marchionne has been appealing to hedge funds and activist investors in a move that seems to verge on desperation. The main takeaways from the appeal are that the government bailouts of GM and Chrysler were not a long-term fix for the industry and that Mr. Marchionne is one of the few experts on the industry who is honest enough to admit it.
The New York Times reports that the Justice Department has concluded that there was criminal wrongdoing by General Motors as the company covered-up a deadly ignition switch defect for years. That defect has now been blamed for causing the deaths of at least 107 motorists. While many observers may have been able to come to the conclusion that GM was guilty long before the Justice Department’s recent epiphany, the bigger question now is, what’s next?
It appears that General Motors is trying to remedy one of the latest criticisms against them. That criticism is that the company has way too large a “cash hoard” and most recently came from former Obama Auto Task Force member turned shareholder activist, Harry Wilson. Well Harry, be at ease; GM has managed to reduce that so-called hoard by over $3 billion in just three months as first quarter earnings flopped on Wall Street.
The verdict is in from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on General Motors’ corroding brake line problem. Despite having received thousands of complaints from motorists regarding brake failure due to brake line rust, the agency claims GM does not have higher failure rates than other manufacturers. The clear evidence to the contrary makes this a classic case of what economists call "regulatory capture." First identified by Nobel laureate George Stigler (in photo) in 1971, it's when a government agency tasked with protecting the public interest instead acts to the benefit of an industry or particular company.
Is the fix in? General Motors is acting like it faces a major decision in responding to the self-nomination of Harry Wilson for its board of directors. Wilson was one of the key members of President Obama's Auto Task Force, and purports to be acting at the behest of hedge funds who want GM to spend the "cash hoard" that was made possible by US taxpayers.
Ironically, Wilson was one of the people who determined how much of a "hoard" GM would accumulate, an amount he now criticizes as being excessive. During, and just prior to, GM's bankruptcy process, taxpayers supplied about $50 billion to "invest" in the company. Canadian taxpayers chipped in about $10 billion while GM had its balance sheet cleared of about $30 billion of debt. The liabilities owed to the politically-favored UAW remained intact.
Harry Wilson, the nemesis of General Motors bondholders who were wiped out in the government-orchestrated GM bankruptcy, is back on the scene. On the front page of today's Wall Street Journal, Wilson is portrayed as an "activist" investor, who seeks to maximize shareholder value. While his suggestion that GM buy back $8 billion of common shares would give a temporary boost to share price, Wilson's motivations may not be entirely pure. His real agenda could be to expand the already-favored position of UAW shareholders, and to bolster the political fortunes of unions in general.
Wilson was a retired banker elected to serve on President Obama's Auto Task Force and was the driving force behind preventing old GM bondholders from receiving due process during the GM bankruptcy process. His involvement led to his current status as a "restructuring expert" and CEO of the MAEVA Group. It now seems that our friend Harry is back to make lots of money for hedge funds, as well as for himself.
The trumpets sounded this morning as General Motors reported its 2014 fourth quarter earnings. GM's bottom line earnings exceeded expectations (although revenue missed and was down from last year) and the pre-market share price of GM immediately jumped over a dollar a share. Despite the victory laps being taken by GM and its friends in the media, it would be wise for individual investors to think twice before jumping on the GM bandwagon.
General Motors recently announced that it bought back preferred stock from the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust and the Canadian government. The deal closed in December of 2014 and supposedly will result in a reduction to GM's fourth quarter earnings to the tune of $800 million. GM had the option to redeem the shares at face value after December 31st of 2014. The timing of the deal brings into question the motivation behind the move and also leads us to reexamine a previous preferred share buyback that occurred in late 2013.
General Motors is now approaching its fifth year of existence since emerging as a new entity as a result of the 2009 auto bailouts which saw taxpayers fund a bankruptcy process to the tune of $50 billion. Much has been debated about the "success" of GM since the controversial government-orchestrated restructuring. While GM management recently announced a dividend in an attempt to ensure investors of financial stability, a more telling indicator of the likelihood of future profitability may be found through an analysis of how competitive the company's vehicles are.