GM profits more than double on North America earnings

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co.’s first-quarter net income of $1.95 billion more than doubled from a year ago and strongly exceeded expectations, as the automaker Thursday reported it broke even in Europe and had improved results in all its regions.

“(It’s) a great quarter, great start to the year and a year when we expect to deliver another record from a profitability perspective,” GM Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens told reporters in Detroit.

The automaker’s earnings of $1.24 per share in the quarter, or a first-quarter record $1.26 a share when adjusted for special items related to ignition switch litigation expenses, eclipsed predictions that GM would earn $1 a share on flat revenue in the January-March period.

J.P. Morgan analyst Ryan Brinkman, in a note to investors Thursday called the results “solid,” with better-than-expected losses in South America and an “impressively” breakeven performance in Europe.

GM reported record first-quarter adjusted earnings of $2.7 billion before interest and taxes, including $300 million in restructuring charges (mostly related to an early retirement incentive for some UAW workers). It revenue grew by $1.6 billion to $37.3 billion.

It was GM’s third straight quarterly earnings record and analysts predicted the stock price would trade higher on the news. GM stock was trading about 1.2 percent higher to $32.60 a share around 1:50 p.m. Thursday.

“We’re growing where it counts, gaining retail share in the U.S., outpacing the industry in Europe and capitalizing on robust growth in SUV and luxury segments in China,” Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said in a statement. “This strong quarter also reflects the excellent progress we’re making to improve results in our more challenged global markets.”

The company earned $945 million in net income in first quarter 2015, or 56 cents a share (86 cents a share when factoring in special items that cost $547 million, or 30 cents a share).

The carmaker’s profit center remained in North America, where adjusted pre-tax income totaled $2.3 billion, up from nearly $2.2 billion a year ago. The company’s results were aided by a higher sales mix of more profitable SUVs and trucks and improved pricing.

The company’s U.S. sales for the first quarter were flat, partly because GM has pulled back on sales to rental companies as it focuses on more profitable sales to consumers. The company, for example, said its average transaction prices after incentives to retail customers was $35,800 last month in the U.S., about $5,000 higher than the industry average.

Results also were strong in China, where the company reported pre-tax earnings of $518 million.

GM reported a $6 million pre-tax loss in Europe, a region GM has said would break even this year after losing billions of dollars in the region over more than a decade. The carmaker lost $239 million before interest and taxes in the region a year ago. The automaker has been restructuring for years in Europe, and its sales there rose 6.4 percent in the first quarter.

The carmaker said it earned $379 million pre-tax for its International Operations and lost $67 million pre-tax in ailing South America where it has faced a challenging economic environment and a sharp sales drop in Brazil. That was better than the $214 million pre-tax loss reported a year ago. GM Financial also earned $225 million before interest and taxes in the quarter.

Earlier this year, GM raised its profit estimates for 2016, including earnings per share of between $5.25 and $5.75.

Despite continued strong financial results, GM’s stock has been stuck in neutral as of late, near its 2010 initial public offering price of $33 a share. Stevens said the auto industry, not specifically GM, is experiencing “negative sentiment” from investors.

“The best thing we can do is continue to execute our short-term and long-term strategy, put the results on the board like we have for the last couple of years, continue to focus on the future through our investments in Lyft and Cruise Automation and innovation and technology, and the share price will reflect that over time,” Stevens told reporters.

GM has been focusing more on personal mobility and autonomous driving development. This year, GM has announced a $500 million investment into Lyft Inc., purchased the assets of ride-hailing company Sidecar Technologies Inc. and acquired California-based Cruise Automation to help it develop autonomous vehicle software and test driverless vehicles. The investment in Cruise Automation, expected to close in the second quarter, has been pegged at an estimated $1 billion.

The company also rolled out Maven, its personal mobility brand that includes a citywide car-sharing program in Ann Arbor. Maven is expanding to other cities this year.

“We’re going to continue with the disciplined and detailed focus on strengthening the core business and the adjacencies, but also taking advantage of growth opportunities and our ability to lead as personal mobility is transformed and redefined,” Barra said in a call with analysts.

GM is the first of the Detroit Three to release earnings. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is expected to report its first-quarter results Tuesday and Ford Motor Co. on April 28.

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