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GM still records profit despite coronavirus impact

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — General Motors Co. plans to restart most of its North American plants May 18 after its net income dropped 86.7% to $294 million in the first quarter of the year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the automaker said Wednesday.

Revenue totaled $32.7 billion in the first quarter, down 6.2% from the first quarter of 2019. GM's profit margin dipped 2.8 points year-over-year to 3.8%.

GM plans to begin restarting its assembly lines on May 18.

"We entered this crisis better positioned financially because of the many business transformation actions we have taken over the past several years to improve our competitiveness," CEO Mary Barra told investors on a conference call.

GM still managed to save $300 million as part of its $4 billion to 4.5 billion "transformational" cost savings program launched in 2018. GM so far has saved $3.6 billion through various actions including plant closures and white-collar layoffs. 

The drop in earnings comes just five months after the Detroit automaker lost $3.6 billion in the fall of 2019 from a six-week, 40-day work stoppage by the United Auto Workers that caused GM's income to fall 17.4% in 2019. Most of GM's North American plants have been down since the end of March after the automaker announced March 18 — seven weeks ago — it would start to systemically stop production.

GM's operating profit of $1.2 billion, a 46% year-over-year decline, reflects a $1.4 billion impact from the pandemic. GM burned through $903 million in the first quarter with the free cash flow impact of the pandemic expected to be $600 million, GM Chief Financial Officer Dhivya Suryadevara told investors.

GM didn't provide guidance for its second-quarter performance because of the uncertainty that exists with some state economies just starting to reopen. And it's not clear how consumer confidence, rattled by the COVID-19 pandemic, will impact demand for cars, trucks and SUVs.

"The industry volumes were significantly off in March and April from the pre-crisis level and as such you can expect that the second quarter will be the hardest hit,"  Suryadevara said. "But it’s worthy of noting even in April we did see resilience in truck deliveries." 

GM's North America profit in the first quarter of $2.2 billion exceeded last year's $1.9 billion because of strong truck and SUV sales and restructuring actions. The earnings were offset partially by lower volume from suspending production. GM's U.S. sales dropped 8% year over year to 611,422 vehicles, the lowest first-quarter volume level in at least the past five years, according to Cox Automotive

GM's trucks sales were a bright spot. Chevrolet Silverado sales jumped 26% to their highest level in at least the last five quarters, according to Cox. The hefty sales enabled Silverado to regain second place in the truck war with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's Ram. GMC Sierra sales were up 31%. 

"There are bright spots within the industry," Suryadevara said. "Obviously trucks are our strong suit."

More GM dealers are utilizing the automaker's online selling tool, "Shop. Click. Drive." With 85% of dealers now using the service, GM has seen a 40% increase in use from consumers.  

Sales in the second quarter likely will take a hit because many dealerships across the U.S. remained closed for the entire month of April. GM ended April with 550,000 units of inventory. When it restarts production later this month, GM will be "prioritizing the products that are leaner from a dealer inventory standpoint and more profitable," Suryadevara said, "making sure the areas, the geographies where we are running low, those are prioritized first in terms of where we would ship to."

GM International reported a loss of $551 million in the first quarter as a result of the viral spread closing plants across the globe. GM China lost $167 million in the quarter. GM shut down plants in China and South America for weeks in the first quarter because of the pandemic. South Korean production was also down for a short period. China and South Korean production has since restarted while South American plants remain closed.

"We are starting to see signs of recovery in China as production has completely restarted and dealer traffic across the industry has increased 70% of pre-COVID levels at the beginning of April," Suryadevara said.

Fiat Chrysler, also planning to restart most plants May 18, on Tuesday reported a net loss of $1.84 billion in the first three months of the year. The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down all of the Italian American automaker's plants from China to South America, contributing to a 16% year-over-year decrease in revenue to $22.3 billion. 

Ford Motor Co. on April 28 reported a $2 billion net loss in the first quarter because of the pandemic. Ford's revenue was $34 billion down from $40 billion last year. The Dearborn automaker, which also closed plants starting March 18, expects to post a pretax loss of $5 billion in the second quarter.

Ford hasn't said when it will look to reopen plants, but The Detroit News previously reported all three automakers were working toward a May 18 restart date following the May 15 end of Michigan's stay-at-home order that doesn't explicitly allow auto manufacturing.

GM ended the quarter with a strong $33.4 billion in automotive liquidity. To conserve cash, GM, which suspended its guidance for the year, halted its quarterly cash dividend on its common stock and stopped its share buyback program. In March, GM drew down $16 billion from its revolving credit facilities to increase its cash position and maintain financial flexibility during the current uncertainty.

The automaker also extended its three-year revolving credit agreement for $3.6 billion to April 2022 to further strengthen its liquidity. GM and GM Financial previously extended a $2 billion 364-day revolving credit agreement to April 2021. 

GM has cut its salaried workforce's pay by 20% with the promise of paying it back with interest.  The automaker has 69,000 salaried employees globally and about 40,000 in the United States.

Instead of laying off salaried manufacturing and engineering employees, GM has said 6,500 will participate in the company's salaried downtime paid absence program and will receive 75% of their pay with benefits.

Executives will have 20% of their salary deferred and a 5% reduction in their cash compensation. Most senior executives will take a 10% reduction. GM's directors also will take a 20% cut in their board compensation.

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall