GM posts record 1Q results, and stock market shrugs

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co.’s net income in the first quarter soared nearly 34 percent to $2.61 billion, a new record for the three-month period. But the stock market largely shrugged off the results Friday.

While GM announced Friday six first-quarter records and another all-time record since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009 as a new company, the lackluster response from Wall Street will do little to ease pressure from a large shareholder that wants the automaker to create two classes of GM stock and bring on a slate of new board members in an effort the shareholder says would unlock value.

New York hedge fund Greenlight Capital Inc., which owns 52 million shares of GM, and its president, David Einhorn, want to create one class of stock to receive dividends and another to participate in earnings, cash flow and future growth. GM opposes the plan and is urging investors to vote the proposal down — as well as the three candidates nominated by Greenlight — at the company’s annual shareholders meeting June 6 in Detroit. A proxy from Greenlight explaining its position on the proposed changes was published Friday.

GM shares traded up 1.5 percent before markets opened Friday morning on news of the financial results driven by record first-quarter revenue aided by sales of profitable trucks and SUVs, strong performance in China and growth for its finance arm GM Financial. The automaker reaffirmed that earnings per share in 2017 will be at least as good as its record performance in 2016. But by day’s end, the stock price was up just 0.29 percent to $34.64 a share. That’s just slightly higher than the company’s 2010 initial public offering price of $33.

Barclays Capital Inc. analyst Brian A. Johnson, in a note to investors Friday, questioned whether the strong earnings report would change the financial market’s view of GM. He said investors appear focused on the “long-in-the-tooth U.S. auto cycle” that makes auto and automotive company stocks unattractive for some.

“We believe GM deserves to be better rewarded for overall strong results and execution,” he said. “But, unfortunately, sometimes the prevailing market sentiment can be overly difficult to fight.”

Investors had a much different response after Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV reported Wednesday its net profit was up 34 percent: Its shares soared 10.5 percent. Ford Motor Co. said Thursday its net income fell 35 percent, and its stock closed down 1.1 percent.

GM Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens said the company’s performance set it up for another strong year in 2017. “(It was) another record quarter,” GM he told reporters Friday. “We’re executing our plan and it’s delivering results.”

The automaker set several first-quarter records since emerging as a new company following its 2009 bankruptcy: revenue at $41.2 billion, up 10.6 percent from a year ago; adjusted pre-tax earnings of $3.4 billion, up 27.9 percent from first-quarter 2016; adjusted pre-tax profit margin of 8.2 percent, up 1.1 percentage points from a year ago; and North America pre-tax adjusted earnings of $3.4 billion, up a whopping 48.8 percent.

Earnings per share were $1.70, well ahead of analyst calls for $1.48 a share. The company earned $1.26 a share in the quarter a year ago.

Research firm Evercore ISI analyst George Galliers, in a note to investors early Friday, correctly predicted GM stock would open higher, but fall during the day as it has on earnings days in recent quarters.

“Given the inventory build in North America, together with the fact that losses increased in other automotive segments, those who harbor concerns around H2 (second half of the year) are unlikely to be reassured by Q1’s result,” Galliers wrote.

The automaker has said it is building inventory ahead of plant downtime coming in the second half of the year as the company retools truck plants for its next-generation pickup. The company at the of end of March had 98 days worth of vehicles on dealer lots, higher than the 60-70 days supply analysts typically say is a healthy. Stevens on Friday said GM expects inventory to be at 70 days supply by the end of the year, consistent with levels at the end of 2016.

Much of the company’s profit was driven again by North America, where GM had record first-quarter revenue of $29.3 billion, an increase of 10.7 percent. Stevens said results were aided by $400 million in higher vehicle pricing and $500 million in cost trimming. Sales volume was up and GM built up inventory ahead of 10 weeks of combined plant downtime in the third quarter, Stevens said.

GM’s U.S. sales through March are up 0.9 percent to 689,521 vehicles, with crossover sales jumping 16 percent and trucks 3 percent in the quarter compared to 2016. Sales of large family-haulers are up, with Chevy Suburban sales jumping 25.9 percent and GMC Yukon sales rising 11.1 percent in the first quarter.

The company earned $504 million from its joint venture in China, down slightly from $518 million a year ago. Sales in China, GM’s largest sales region — 913,442 in total — are down 5.2 percent through the first three months of the year due to an earlier Chinese holiday and reduction in a tax incentive there. The company’s earnings for its International Operations, which includes China, totaled $319 million pre-tax for the quarter, down from $379 million.

In the rest of the world, results dropped from a year ago.

GM Europe posted a pre-tax loss of $201 million, significantly higher than the $6 million loss in the quarter a year ago. The company blamed the drop on negative foreign exchange related to Brexit, the United Kingdom’s vote last year to withdraw from the European Union. In March, GM announced it will sell its money-losing Opel and Vauxhall European brands and its GM Financial European operations to French automaker PSA Group, a deal that’s expected to close by year’s end.

GM South America posted a pre-tax loss of $115 million, up from a loss of $67 million a year earlier. GM blamed the drop mostly on challenging economic conditions. Earlier this month, GM opted to immediately cease operations in Venezuela after government authorities seized its lone factory there. The factory employed about 2,700. No vehicles had been built for more than a year.

Stevens said Friday the company is working through the legal system to gain access to its assets in the country.

“We haven’t been operating in a normal fashion there for 12-18 months,” Stevens said. “We don’t necessarily want to exit the country, but certainly it’s not an environment that you can invest in or run a normal business at this point.”

(313) 222-2319

Twitter: @MBurden_DN