Insights & Advice

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General Motors: Back to the Future

“No, I know; you *did* send me back to the future. But I’m back – I’m back *from* the future.” Marty McFly

It will be the largest public offering in U.S. history. A total of $23.1 billion was raised, including $4.35 billion in preferred stock. That was no small accomplishment, given the recent sell-off in world markets. General Motors is back.

What a difference two years make. Over that time, I had written several columns at first advocating letting GM go bankrupt (which it ultimately did). It was either that or a merger, if they could find an auto company that was willing to step up to the plate and buy it. There were no takers. When the government announced its last resort of a $49.5 billion bail out last year, I had mixed feelings.

After the huge bank bail-outs, I wasn’t happy about rescuing GM. I believed that the auto company deserved its fate. Its management had guided the company downhill ever since the mid-90s with the help of the labor unions. It was their arrogant “we know best” attitude in the face of obvious changes in the global automotive marketplace (such as the move toward smaller, more fuel efficient cars) that really bothered me.

On the other hand, I also knew that we didn’t need another avalanche of lay-offs in the face of an unemployment rate that was climbing at 400,000 lost jobs per month. And GM employees were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to lost jobs. The ripple effect on auto suppliers would have to be added to the GM jobs. Then there were the dealerships across the nation. Car dealers provide enormous benefits to just about every local community in America in the form of jobs, taxes, charitable giving, while providing increased shopping traffic to the community they reside in.

By the time I took account of the enormous blow back GM and Chrysler’s demise would cause, I reluctantly agreed that the bail out was better than the alternative although my stance was not very popular among readers.

In September, 2009 in “Why Americans should become Detroit’s long term investors,” I wrote the following about the billions in taxpayer money we were investing:

“Now, as we like to say in the money management business, the past is no guarantee of future performance, yet there is a chance if we have a little patience here we too could walk away with a big return. Besides, what do we the taxpayers have to lose? Sure, I know there will be some that say the government has no business becoming the major shareholder in American auto companies and should exit this investment at the earliest possible time. Some will even say it is un-American if we don’t. I say it’s a little too late for those attitudes. The horse is already out of the barn. So go ahead and call me a socialist. I say we took a huge risk when no one else would, and we deserve a commensurate return on this investment”.

“Now that presumes I have some faith in the future of the American auto industry, and I do. All I have read concerning the on-going restructuring taking place in research and development, in manufacturing processes, and management structures indicate to me that the Big Three are getting their act together. Ford is clearly on the right path and so are GM and Chrysler. After all, none of them have lost their main competitive edge—American labor and ingenuity. I’ll bet on that. So let’s hang in there. I believe a little patience will pay off for all of us down the road.”

So far GM has returned $9.5 billion of that loan. With this offering, another $13 billion will flow back to the government, leaving tax payer ownership at roughly 26%, down from 61%. It is a shame that the government does not have the patience to hold on to their shares because overtime I think taxpayers could have made a substantial profit.

I guess removing the “government motors” stigma from the company outweighed the profit motive. Over the next few years, the government will continue to sell down their position in the same manner that they are now reducing their ownership of Citibank (at a profit). It looks like most of our investment will be recouped and at a far faster than I imagined.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics