GM was profitable despite strike, expects to remain so in challenging 2020

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — Despite a slowing U.S. auto market and challenging markets abroad, General Motors Co. expects 2020 results to remain steady.

That's after a difficult 2019 when GM's income fell 17.4% to $6.7 billion, following a 40-day national strike that cost the automaker $3.6 billion. If not for the United Auto Workers strike, GM says its operating profit of $8.4 billion would have been $12 billion. The automaker's revenue of $137.2 billion for the full year was down 6.7%, and its profit margin dipped 1.9 points year-over-year to 6.1%.

Strong truck sales helped keep GM profitable in 2019, despite a 40-day strike by the UAW that dented the bottom line.

The Detroit automaker expects to benefit in 2020 from new-vehicle introductions, ongoing cost-savings and a leaner U.S. inventory because of the strike. Cash flow for 2020 is forecasted to be in the range of $6 billion to $7.5 billion. The automaker expects earnings per share to be flat year-over-year in the range of $5.75 to $6.25.

"We are doing that despite a more challenging macro environment," GM Chief Financial Officer Dhivya Suryadevara said Wednesday after the automaker reported its fourth-quarter and annual earnings.

In 2019, earnings per share were $4.82, down 26.3% due largely to the UAW work stoppage in the fall. As a result of the strike, in the third quarter GM had reduced its full-year profit outlook to earnings per share of between $4.50 to $4.80 from $6.50 and $7.

GM's cash flow was $1.1 billion, but when adjusted for the strike it was $6.5 billion, above the initial range GM guided for at the start of 2019.

GM will roll out several new vehicles this year, including the Chevrolet Tahoe, Suburban and Corvette; the Cadillac Escalade, CT4 and CT5; and the Buick Encore GX. And it expects continued growth with its heavy-duty and light-duty trucks. More than half of GM's North America revenue — about $65 billion annually — comes from truck sales.

Despite the slowdown in the U.S. and concern for its business abroad, GM says it will continue to make progress in 2020 toward an all-electric future with investments in Michigan and Ohio.

"I believe that 2020 is the year that our work comes together, and we move forward with integrated solutions that will be the groundwork for reinventing how we deliver mobility to our customers," GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said at GM's Capital Markets Day event on Wednesday in New York.

Investments taking shape this year include a $2.2 billion investment at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant to build electric vehicles including the GMC Hummer EV and the all-electric Cruise Origin, an autonomous shuttle developed with GM autonomous-vehicle unit Cruise LLC and Honda Motor Co. GM also is investing $2.3 billion with LG Chem in northeast Ohio to build a battery-cell manufacturing plant.

The automaker believes it can leverage the success of its internal-combustion trucks to get consumers turned on to its battery-electric trucks, including the Hummer EV expected in late 2021.

GM President Mark Reuss on Wednesday told investors during the automaker's Capital Markets Day event that the Hummer EV will offer models with different ranges and different performance at different price points to meet the customers where they are. The EV architecture used on the Hummer can work for multiple brands, he said.

The new Hummer will be unveiled May 20. 

On the autonomous side, GM will offer its Super Cruise driving-assistance technology on more models this year and in coming years. The new Cadillacs to be introduced in 2020 — the Escalade, CT4 and CT5 — will offer  Super Cruise. By the end of 2023, it will be available on 22 models, including full-size pickups and SUVs, Reuss told investors.

Cruise LLC sees the autonomous vehicle market as an $8 trillion opportunity. The most important step in the development of the technology "is to reach a super-human level of safety performance," Cruise President Dan Amman told investors on Capital Markets Day.

"That's what the majority of our energy is focused on right now," he said. 

Cruise delayed last July the 2019 launch of its fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Bolt-based Cruise AVs. Ammann didn't provide an updated launch date Wednesday.

Also in 2020, GM plans to continue reducing the number of parts for its vehicles. In 2019, the automaker eliminated 3,500 parts, or about 12%. This year, GM plans to eliminate 25% of parts in plants.

This and other steps "will help us self-fund our electrification programs," Reuss said. "Beyond that we will continue doing all the big-picture things like getting out of footprints that don't make money." 

In 2019, GM saved $3.3 billion of the original savings commitment it had; it has $1 billion left to save, which the automaker expects to happen this year.

A freshened lineup in 2020 — the three Cadillacs, plus the Chevrolet Tahoe, Suburban and Corvette, and the Buick Encore GX and others — is expected to give GM an advantage in a year in which U.S. sales are expected to decline after five years above 17 million. Volatile markets in China and South America are also expected to continue to take a toll.

Largely as a result of the strike, GM's North America profit in 2019 dipped to $8.2 billion from $10.8 billion the previous year. But the automaker said the strong performance of its trucks helped to offset the loss. GM sold more than 2.8 million vehicles in 2019, including more than 1 million trucks.

GM International reported a $202 million loss for the year as volatility continued in China, where the automaker saw a 15% decrease in sales last year. In 2018, GM made $423 million internationally.

The industry in China "is maturing," Suryadevara said. "This is after a couple of decades of growth that we have seen in the industry. What you are seeing in the past couple of years there is a normalization of many years of growth we have experienced."

GM is still continuing to monitor how the coronavirus will impact its operations there. About 15 GM assembly plants have been down since Jan. 24 for the Lunar New Year holiday in China. The holiday downtime was extended through Feb. 9. GM is following the government's guidance to decide when production can resume again.

"It's a fluid situation," Suryadevara said. "Our focus really is on our employees and their safety.  From a business standpoint, we are assessing the impact on demand, the impact on the global supply chain and we have activated contingency plans across the enterprise."

In the last quarter of the year, GM lost $194 million on revenue of $30.8 billion that dipped 19.7% year-over-year. GM lost four weeks of vehicle production during the fourth quarter, reducing wholesale deliveries by 191,000. The strike led to a $2.6 billion loss just in the fourth quarter. 

Ford Motor Co. on Tuesday reported a net income of just $47 million last year — a 99% decline from 2018. It blamed the botched rollout of the new Explorer SUV for much of the downturn.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV will report its 2019 earnings on Thursday.

Twitter: @bykaleahall