General Motors Begins December With a Bang


General Motors is entering a new era. Photo credit: General Motors

What a start to December it's been for America's largest auto manufacturer, General Motors . It's managed to embrace multiple newsworthy events, larger than most companies will see over the course of years, all in the first 11 days of the month. In case investors missed anything, here's a recap of major events in its sales reports, its ownership by the U.S. Treasury, its decision to pull Chevrolet out of Europe -- oh, and a new CEO is in place to take over the once-troubled automaker on Jan. 15, 2014.

November sales
General Motors delivered 212,060 vehicles in the U.S. in November, continuing the vehicle sales surge that has been a staple of consumer spending recently. Early in December GM announced its sales last month were up 14% compared to a year ago, with an even better sales mix. Its retail sales, typically more profitable, were up 19% while its fleet sales were down 3%. GM's two largest brands by volume, Chevrolet and GMC, posted huge retail sales gains of 20.5% and 24.8% over last year, respectively.

The story was much the same in the world's largest automotive market, China, except for one small detail: It was GM's best November in the region, ever. Sales increased 13.3% to 294,500 vehicles and will break a year-to-date sales mark of 3 million vehicles for the first time ever in mid-December -- right about now.

The good news only started there, and shortly after that announcement the U.S. Treasury said it had sold the last of its ownership in General Motors.

U.S. Treasury exit
After the U.S. Treasury had sold all of its shares, which began as a 61% stake in the automaker, it recouped $39 billion of its original $49.5 billion investment. That leaves taxpayers on the hook for roughly $10.5 billion, and even more in hidden costs as GM was allowed to use tax credits from its massive losses prior to its bankruptcy -- meaning GM is just now beginning to pay rightful taxes on its profits.

While, yes, GM's bankruptcy was unique and it was allowed to wipe tens of billions of dollars in debt off its books, it's still been quite a bumpy road for the company. A short decade ago General Motors' market share in the U.S. was at 25%, and much higher decades before; now it checks in around 18%, which is near record lows for the company.

The Treasury's exit marked the end of General Motors' worst chapter in company history. While it will take longer to repair its brand image, and hisses of "Government Motors" will likely remain, the company is clearly on track and putting its best foot forward.

It was no coincidence that after the Treasury announced its exit, a successor was named for CEO Dan Akerson.

The 2014 Impala is a glimpse at GM's product turnaround. Photo credit: General Motors

Mary Barra, CEO
As the company heads into this new era, it will do so under a new leader. Mary Barra isn't a newcomer to General Motors and she's been through the worst of times during her 33 years with the Detroit automaker. Barra has played a key role in General Motors' transformation and turnaround story in her position as GM's global product chief, and has the experience to shine as the first woman to lead a global automaker.

For insight on how well products have been designed under her watchful eye, look no further than Chevrolet's 2014 Impala. Consumer Reports said it was its highest-scoring sedan in the ratings, which is something no other domestic car has done over the last two decades. Among all car ratings, it trailed only the Tesla Model S and BMW's 1 Series -- two vehicles that you'll have to pay substantially more to drive off dealer lots.

With a succeeding CEO named, investors should rest assured that the company will continue to make better decisions going forward and focus on higher quality products. One recent example is out of its operations in Europe.

Chevrolet out of Europe
General Motors is acknowledging its mistake to sink massive amounts of resources into marketing Chevrolet as a value brand in Europe and is pulling the vehicle lineup almost entirely out of the region by the end of 2016. This will enable General Motors to focus on its Opel and Vauxhall brands, which had outsold Chevrolet by a six-to-one ratio, according to Automotive News. This will better position Opel and Vauxhall, as Chevrolet often overlapped vehicle markets with those two brands. In addition to removing brand overlaps, GM will be introducing its luxury Cadillac lineup in Europe, which has very little presence. While this decision will bring on short-term losses -- charges are expected to total between $700 million to $1.0 billion and will land primarily in the fourth quarter this year -- it will be a long-term win for GM and its investors.

Bottom line
Ultimately, these stories seem like an eclectic sampling from the first 11 days of December, but they actually lay out a nice theme for General Motors. The company is looking to continue its surge and sales momentum this year as it begins a new era with its next CEO and no U.S. Treasury ownership. Its management is a night-and-day difference from "old" General Motors and is making decisions for long-term health, which is a focus Detroit automakers have typically lacked. Even after its stock price has surged 40% this year, GM still trades at a cheap 7.3 forward P/E, and it seems to have plenty of room left to run as it continues to shore up its bottom-line profits.

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