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At General Motors, Loss Reduction Is a Good Start

At General Motors, Loss Reduction Is a Good Start

The restructured automaker is expected to report a relatively modest third-quarter loss on Monday, with improvement in cash flow and pricing

On Monday, Nov. 16, General Motors CEO Frederick A. "Fritz" Henderson will give the company’s first update since it emerged from bankruptcy in June. The news is supposed to be good—relatively speaking.

Sources close to management who have seen the preliminary financials, but who asked not to be named, say GM will show much-improved third-quarter earnings and cash flow. The company will still be in the red, according to the sources, but will have cut losses from recent quarters by billions of dollars.

Even a slight loss would be big progress for GM. The company lost $6 billion in the first quarter—the last quarter GM reported before going bankrupt—and it lost $31 billion last year. In the third quarter of 2008, GM lost $4.2 billion, including one-time charges.

GM will show improvements in cash flow through lower costs and better net pricing on its cars, the sources say. That tracks the kind of improvements rival Ford Motor (F) showed on Nov. 2, when lower costs and high sticker prices added up to a surprise $1 billion profit.

Striking Distance of Breakeven?

"GM is stabilizing, but it’s not stabilized," says longtime industry watcher Joseph Phillippi, principal of AutoTrends, a New Jersey consultancy. "The new cars are doing well."

In fact, the sources maintain that GM was within striking distance of breaking even in the third quarter, not counting charges for special items and restructuring costs.

Improved numbers would be a relief for Henderson, who is under pressure from new Chairman Edward Whitacre and GM’s board to show results.

The company’s earnings and cash flow will be helped in the quarter by the fact that it shut down many plants in June while it was in bankruptcy. To give dealers new inventory, factories had to crank back up when the company emerged. That will help earnings because carmakers book revenue as soon as a car heads off the assembly line for a dealership.

At the same time, the company is still paying out union health-care costs. The company has set up a Voluntary Employee Benefits Trust, or VEBA, to pay union health-care benefits the way a pension fund pays pension benefits. But that plan hasn’t kicked in yet, so GM’s profitability won’t show improvement from the VEBA deal until next year.

CEO Henderson to Make Three Presentations

GM’s accounting is bound to raise a lot of questions. The company was in bankruptcy for the first 10 days of the quarter. On July 10, the new GM emerged and the old GM—consisting of unwanted plants and other assets—was split from the company. But accounting for profits, losses, and cash between new GM and old GM has been an accounting boondoggle, says one inside source. GM’s legal and accounting staff has been working late hours and was expected to toil over the weekend finalizing the numbers for Henderson’s delivery on Monday.

In fact, a source briefed on the plan says Henderson will give three presentations: One will detail the third quarter of the prior year, 2008; another will discuss the impact of the bankruptcy and old GM on the financial results; and a third will focus on results for the 80 days following GM’s emergence from Chapter 11 proceedings on July 10 until the most recent quarter ended on Sept. 30.

GM is showing some progress in its showrooms. Vice-Chairman Robert A. Lutz told reporters in October that GM’s cars had an $8,000 increase in net pricing in September. Sales also rose in September and GM’s market-share losses have leveled off in recent months to about 20%.

GM’s cash-flow situation is probably also looking better. The company said on Nov. 13 that it paid back €200 million of a bridge loan from the German government to GM’s European Opel unit. GM still owes €400 million, but the fact that the company is paying debt down is a sign that cash is less of a problem.

Welch is BusinessWeek‘s Detroit bureau chief.

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