Why Investors Love General Motors Again

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From the looks of its earnings report and the reaction by investors, it might appear than General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) has fooled investors into thinking that the fourth quarter and indeed the full year were a lot better than they were. Based on reported (GAAP) numbers, appearances would seem to bear that out.

But on closer inspection, some things that do not glitter also may be gold. Backing out a $5.04 per share charge related to changes in U.S. tax law and a couple of other items, GM’s quarterly adjusted diluted earnings per share of $1.65 easily beat consensus estimates and was more than 21% higher than in the same period last year.

For the full year, the company reported a net loss of $3.9 billion, included a $7.3 billion charge related tax law changes and $6.9 billion related to the sale of its Opel/Vauxhall business in Europe.

Cost of sales in the automotive segment for the year fell by nearly $5.5 billion (about 4.5%) and SG&A costs fell 7.5% to $9.6 billion. Even though automotive revenues fell by about $7 billion, operating income fell by less than $350 million. U.S. EBIT adjusted margin came in at a record 10.7%, despite a volume decline of 11.3%.

GM sold more than a million more vehicles in China than in the United States last year and sales of sport utility vehicles soared 37% in China. Excluding Europe, where GM no longer sells new vehicles, unit sales for the year were essentially flat at 2.593 million, down just 10,000 units from the 2016 total.

Demand for the company’s SUVs, crossovers and pickups was high all year, and these vehicles commanded higher prices than the slower selling passenger vehicles. By one estimate, the average selling price of a full-size pickup last year was $47,000, a full $10,000 higher than the average price of a passenger car.

GM has high hopes for its all-new full-size 2019 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups that are set to launch later this year. Ford has redesigned F-Series pickups out for model year 2018, and Ram will have a redesigned 2019 pickup out later this year.

All three U.S. makers are going where the money is, and their Japanese competitors have done the same. Toyota (up 33%) and Nissan (up 46%) both posted huge increases in pickup truck sales last month, but volumes were less than 10% of pickup sales volumes for the Detroit 3.

CEO Mary Barra called 2017 a “transformative year” and hinted that the transformation is not altogether completed yet. If 2018 is nothing more than a repeat of 2017, most investors would be happy with that.

One final note: GM said it will cut profit-sharing checks of up to $11,750 for about 50,000 U.S. workers. The bonuses are based on North American operating profit.

GM shares traded up nearly 5% in the late morning Tuesday, at $41.50 in a 52-week range of $31.92 to $46.76. The S&P 500 index was down about 0.3%, while the blue chip Dow Jones Industrials traded up nearly 0.8% following Monday’s massive losses.