Rumors have circulated that General Motors is considering building Buick SUVs in China which would be sold both there and in the USA. The timing of the leaked plans could not be worse as China markets continue to collapse, spreading contagion to world markets. The timing also coincides with GM’s negotiations with the UAW, raising the suspicion that GM is using the rumor to leverage their bargaining power with the UAW.
Why is GM focusing so much on the Chinese market at the worst of times? Regardless of the weakening Chinese economy, it would be challenging to convince American consumers to purchase SUVs built in China given the perception of lower quality and safety standards. China also has not been the best of US allies considering ongoing computer hacking allegations, aggressive military build-ups and unfair currency devaluation tactics.
General Motors recently announced that it will spend $5 billion on a joint venture with Chinese state-owned SAIC Motor to develop vehicles for emerging markets. The announcement came around the same time that GM reported results for 2015 second quarter earnings, which showed cash and cash equivalents decreasing $2.2 billion in the first six months of the year. Marketable securities also declined by $2 billion during that time frame.
It would appear that the insiders at General Motors do not have as rosy a view on the financial outlook for the company as they would have the rest of the public believe. The well-paid executives at GM sold out of another $2.8 million worth of shares in June according to Yahoo Financial statistics. Of course, the sales of shares are pure profits for the higher-ups at GM, considering that the elite group of executives receive millions of dollars’ worth of GM shares for free through stock options.
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.