Shares of General Motors remain elevated off the one-two punch of a Wall Street analyst upgrading the automaker’s stock for the potential of its autonomous-driving technology and a pledge by the company to someday go entirely zero-emissions.
I’m not buying on those headlines, or at least I hope my money manager got ahead of it. The Deutsche Bank upgrade from Sept. 24 and the Oct. 2 GM announcement, which promised an all-electric future for the Detroit automaker beginning in the next 18 months, are speculative, opportunistic and hardly the sort of news on which to build an investment case.
Nonetheless, GM shares are up nearly 13% in the past two weeks after languishing for years since the once-bankrupt company returned to public trading in 2010. It would appear Wall Street’s desperate search for alpha has spun GM into the flavor of the month on the promise of self-driving cars and EVs, not unlike the irrational exuberance its startup rival Tesla has been riding without proving it can earn a dime outside of selling tailpipe-emissions credits.
I’m hoping something else is going on here: Perhaps the stock got a final nudge the broader investment community needed to return to a one-time perennial blue-chipper. Because, frankly folks, GM has been laying down reason after reason for Wall Street to recognize the company’s value for nearly two years.
Let’s begin with easily the least glamorous but most important of those reasons, which is a break-even point of 10.5 million sales annually in the U.S., GM’s most profitable market. In other words, the company’s painful restructuring right-sized the automaker to earn shareholders money if the market tanks again and it sells less than 2 million vehicles in a calendar year.
Think about that: GM at one time struggled to earn a profit when annualized U.S. sales were in the 17-million-unit range. In the past two-and-a-half years, with sales at 17 million-plus, it has booked cumulative earnings of $23 billion.
The automaker also pays shareholders a quarterly dividend, a payout as reliable as the sunrise. Combined with share repurchases, GM expects to return $7 billion to shareholders this year alone.
GM also seeks to preserve profits, which means keeping a lid on discounts and sales to less-than-favorable fleet channels. The automaker’s wild incentive spending of years past now tracks the industry average, while its average transaction prices are rising.
Sales to fleet and rental companies, where the old GM would dump product to boost sales for bankers’ eyes at the expense of the more-profitable retail channel, are at historic lows and better than the industry average. Sales to rental companies, which for years eroded GM brand strength, have been reduced by 174,000 units since 2015 and Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC models are getting more looks.
GM’s portfolio has never been stronger, although like the rest of the industry it is scrambling to catch up with the sudden shift in consumer demand away from cars to crossovers and the automaker’s bankruptcy still has its important Cadillac luxury brand behind the 8-ball.
GM management is making bold moves, though. They have pulled the automaker from unprofitable markets, such as Europe and Russia, decisions previous managers were too prideful to make, and are quicker to execute unpopular production cuts at assembly plants with slow-selling products.
And then there are the future mobility bets suddenly gaining attention. The industry cringed when GM paid $1 billion for Cruise Automation last year, but it shows the automaker’s leaders no longer are bashful about seeking outside help when the expertise does not reside in-house. The acquisition has accelerated GM’s autonomous-driving work to where it may indeed be first-to-market with the technology.
More recently, GM snatched up a Lidar expert to further fuel its autonomous programs.
Although EVs remain a niche market globally, governments want them on the street and fossil-fuel-burning internal-combustion engines off it. GM sells the only affordable long-range EV in the U.S. and brought it to market on time and has the cash to broaden its offerings to other brands and regions.
However, neither of those technologies is a sure bet. If they do take off, it will be decades before they become mainstream products. They are a gamble, albeit a necessary and calculated one.
Even GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, who put the automaker on its path to zero-emissions, has tempered enthusiasm for EVs, saying they will be successful only if consumer enthusiasm for the products exists. Regulatory measures alone will not suffice, she says.
If investors applied the same rational thinking to their own business, GM shares would have eclipsed $45 long ago. But perhaps more disconcerting is that if the stock can rise that sharply off these two pieces of positive news, it easily could go in the other direction if there are any hiccups. And, by the way, auto sales in the U.S. have peaked and now are declining.
So yeah, I hope the guy, or gal, managing my retirement fund and my kids’ college savings plans isn’t buying GM stock on this news. I hope they’re taking a little profit from it.