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Why GM is repaying bailout money while it is still loss-making

There are a lot of threads to tie together in today’s reporting of news in the auto sector.

General Motors has reported a third-quarter loss of $1.15 billion. But all indications are that car sales continue to outpace expectations in the United States.  Meanwhile, there are conflicting stories that GM both plans to pay back its bailout money, and to use it to help its ailing European operations. I will try to tie all these stories into a common thread.

First are the earnings. This is the first report by General Motors since leaving bankruptcy.  The results are decidedly mixed showing increasing sales, but a large loss and declining liquidity.

The video above points to losses and negative cash flow. But Bloomberg has reported that GM had significantly positive cash flow in Q3: $3.3 billion worth. Irrespective, sales are up.

The New York Times’ Deal Book says:

Excluding taxes and one-time items like the costs related to restructuring its dealership network, G.M. said its operations lost $261 million from July 10 and September 30. The loss in North America was $651 million.

For the entire third quarter, including the final 10 days of G.M.’s bankruptcy, the company said its revenue was $28 billion, up 21 percent from the second quarter.

In addition, retail sales have revealed that car sales in the U.S. are still relatively brisk for October despite the expiration of cash for clunkers. So, GM is benefitting from more sales, but is still not making money and still seeing cash go out the door. Obviously, they are going to need to cut costs even more, unless they count on sales returning to pre-crisis levels.  However, all indications are that they do, as CEO Fritz Henderson says revenue growth is their number one priority.

“We have significantly more work to do, but today’s results provide evidence of the solid foundation we’re building for the new G.M.,” the chief executive, Fritz Henderson, said in a statement. “With a healthier balance sheet and a competitive cost structure, our focus is on driving top line performance.”

See the Bloomberg video below for my comments by Henderson.

Meanwhile, in what should be seen as a PR move, General Motors has also announced it will begin repaying government money. The first $1 billion to be repaid in December. The company will make $1 billion payments to the U.S. government and $200 million payments to the Canadian government every quarter. It has said it could repay all the aid money by 2011, four years ahead of schedule. Presumably, this does not include the equity government stakes which can be sold on in the open market in an I.P.O.

Given the fact that General Motors is still losing money, it would make sense for them to delay repayment. However, I reckon they are going to repay early in order to tamp down criticism about their government-funded bailout.

The same is true in Germany as well as GM has also announced it will repay ALL German state aid before month’s close.  That is big. It significantly reduces the German government’s leverage over GM plans for restructuring in Germany.

This makes the recent statements about using bailout funds to bolster European operations seem inexplicable. If GM is losing money and needs to use bailout funds to plug up holes in Europe because it has decided to renege on an agreement to sell operations, why is it paying back bailout funds?  Is it not obvious the company needs the money?

My interpretation of GM’s actions is this: they are still a loss-making company and their cost basis is unprofitable at present sales levels. In order to return to profitability, they will need to further reduce costs or increase sales. At present, management have opted to grow the top line – and this makes retaining the European operations vital as the auto technology at Opel is considered first class.

So, GM has reneged on the Opel sale, risking the political backlash, because it is flush with bailout cash.  However, it knows that its desire to use these funds to stabilize the European business is likely to invite populist outcries in North America. This is why they have announced the repayment schedule today; it is purely a public relations maneuver to quell any anti-bailout sentiment. They are repaying German state aid for similar reasons, but also because it gives them greater flexibility in making operating decisions about job cuts and plant closures.

As GM is not publicly traded, we do not have stock prices as a gauge of how receptive investors are to these latest moves. But, according to Bloomberg, GM 8 3/8 bonds maturing 2033 jumped significantly, adding $2.63 to move to $20.3 on $100 par value.

You can expect to see GM as a topic in both the business and political press for some time to come.

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.

7 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    GM is paying back these loans with taxpayer money. They are getting the money from a 13B escrow account setup by the Gov. This is not really paying back the taxpayers. This is only taking from the taxpayers to repay them. I think GM will go under again soon.

  2. Anonymous says:

    GM is getting a lot of criticism right now from the Americans for using our taxpayer dollars that they received in the bailout to further their overseas operations. Wonder if places like China are where they are getting the money to pay back these loans. http://www.newsy.com/videos/gm_criticized_for_using_bailout_money_to_boost_overseas_growth