Government Motors: As GM shares near record low, taxpayer loss on bailout rises to $35 billion

General Motors shares fell to a fresh 2012 low of 19.27 this last Monday. The treasury still owns 26.5% of GM and taxpayers are still out $26.4 billion in direct aid. Shares need to hit at least $53 to break even.

Posted 07/03/2012 08:26 AM ET
Investors News

To quote Lando Calrissian, this deal's getting worse all the time.

General Motors (GM) shares fell to a fresh 2012 closing low of 19.57 on Monday. The stock hit 19 in mid-December, the lowest since the auto giant came public at $33 in November 2010 following its June 2009 bankruptcy.

Normally you might say, tough luck investors. But this is Government Motors. The Treasury still owns 26.5% of GM, or 500 million shares. Taxpayers are still out $26.4 billion in direct aid. Shares would have to hit $53 for the government to break even.

Those shares were worth about $9.8 billion as of Monday. That would leave taxpayers with a loss of $16.6 billion.

But that's not the full tally. Obama let GM keep $45 billion in past losses to offset future profits. Those are usually wiped out or slashed, along with debts, in bankruptcy. But the administration essentially gifted $45 billion in write-offs (book value $18 billion) to GM. So when GM earned a $7.6 billion profit in 2011 (more on that below), it paid no taxes.

Include that $18 billion gift, and taxpayers' true loss climbs to nearly $35 billion.

Of course, there's no chance that the Obama administration will sell off its GM stake before Election Day. That would force Obama to recognize actual losses, which would remind voters that the bailout was a massive transfer from taxpayers to unions.

Union workers did make sacrifices in bankruptcy, but not nearly enough. GM only narrowed the labor cost gap vs. what Japanese automakers pay their workers. Given that Toyota (TM) still enjoys a price premium over similar GM vehicles, the U.S. auto giant needs a labor cost advantage, not near-parity. And Toyota has relatively high costs. Volkswagen(VLKAY) pays workers at its new Tennessee plant only about half what GM does.

The Volt hybrid was supposed to provide a green veneer to GM's entire lineup, like the Prius has done for Toyota. Instead, the Volt has been a p.r. disaster following fires and anemic sales that led to a temporary production halt earlier this year.

GM's market share and profits got an artificial boost in 2011 as Japan's earthquake and Thailand's massive floods wrecked havoc with supply chains for Toyota and other Japanese automakers. But with Toyota back on track and VW and Hyundai aggressively expanding in America, GM is rapidly losing share in 2012.

Overall U.S. auto sales were strong to start the year, but that momentum has faded along with slowing economic growth and hiring. Falling gas prices also may reduce the incentive to replace aging cars and trucks with higher-mileage vehicles. Automakers release U.S. June vehicle sales on Tuesday.

Update: GM's June sales rose 15.5% vs. a year earlier, much better than expected. But while retail sales rose 8%, lower-margin sales to car rental agencies and other fleets, shot up 36%. Still, GM shares rose 5.6% in holiday-shortened trading. But that only trimmed the bailout loss by about $550 million -- from nearly $35 billion to about $34 billion.

And the U.S. currently is the garden spot of Ceti Alpha 6 for auto sales.

Europe has become a sinkhole. The auto industry faced chronic overcapacity in Europe before the debt crisis erupted because national politics make it very hard to close any money-losing plant in any country. With Italy and Spain on the brink of a meltdown, auto sales in those countries are in freefall.

Ford (F) last week warned of major losses in Europe and other overseas markets.

GM has done well in China, now the world's No. 1 auto market, but that economic growth is slowing there too. Meanwhile several big cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, are capping new car registrations to fight massive gridlock.

So don't expect GM's prospects to improve significantly in the near term. Obama says he saved GM and the U.S. auto industry for the "long term". But using taxpayer dollars to prop up a high-cost, low-premium producer in a mature market isn't a foundation for success.

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