Howes: Market meltdown mars GM feat

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Here's an irony that could only be made in Detroit:

On the same day General Motors Co. says the automaker sold more cars and trucks worldwide in the third quarter than anytime since 1980 — good news anyway you cut it in this town — the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunges more than 450 points before closing Wednesday down 173 to 16,141.

The reason for the meltdown? Count the ways: new growth fears in Europe, led by declining industrial production in Germany; mildly disappointing economic indicators in the United States; slumping oil prices that cheer consumers but dampen retail sales; slower growth rates in China, troubled markets in Latin America and who knows what in the Middle East.

Add, too, legitimately deepening concern over the national security threats posed by ISIS, the public health dangers of a metastasizing Ebola virus and the ability of the West (chiefly the Obama administration) to manage either effectively, transparently or with discipline.

All of it, and more, is raising the specter of a broad global slowdown spooking investors. They've arguably grown too complacent in a cocoon spun from rising equity prices, interest rates kept low by central bank intervention and slowly improving growth rates at home, if not abroad.

Meaning it's a very good thing that GM's sales performance is being driven by record sales in China (up 11.6 percent for the year) and North America (up 4.5 percent through September), where consumers appear to be comparatively undeterred by the deadly ignition-switch scandal blamed so far for 27 deaths.

Not so good is that fact that the car business stinks in much of the rest of the world, a fact GM, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV have made clear in the past few weeks. GM's Brazil business is off 12.2 percent so far this year; Argentina and Venezuela are negative.

India and Thailand are challenged. Russia is getting squeezed by sanctions. The Middle East is uncertain, naturally, putting increased pressure on China and a (finally) restructured North America to bolster sagging volume and profitability elsewhere.

GM and its rivals will need all the help they can get if market volatility, coupled with a toxic combination of global instability and official incompetence, undermines further the confidence of consumers at home to buy and businesses to invest — if they haven't already.

Investors and the buying public have eyes. They can see governments and their agencies are muffing the effort to "degrade and destroy ISIS" and exaggerating their preparedness to contain a deadly disease born in West Africa. Confidence-instilling it ain't.

And less than three weeks before the mid-term elections? Forget about it. The cascade of crises, exacerbated by plunging markets and the hits they bring to 401(k) balances, are not likely to deliver votes of confidence come Election Day.

The question for Detroit and its hometown auto industry is whether the turmoil in the markets and global politics will continue long enough and grow painful enough to further erode the industry confidence funding new investments and new jobs in Michigan and plant cities across the country.

Earlier exogenous shots — Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the global financial meltdown of 2008, to name two — culminated in brutal corporate blood-lettings in 1992 and a bankruptcy in 2009 for a GM whose debt-laden North American operations could not cope with a precipitous decline in market demand.

Should today bring anything resembling a repeat, the result likely would be different. GM today is a fundamentally changed company, thanks in part to an assist from American taxpayers and leadership team far less beset with the GM Delusion.

The automaker's debt load is manageable; its break-even point is lower; its product lines are more profitable, and they're expected to become even more so with the roll out of vehicles here and overseas, chiefly from Opel.

CEO Mary Barra credits the record performance to North America and China, where GM is on track to sell more than 3 million vehicles and likely surpass last year's record of 3.16 million. She also cites a long-overdue rebound in the market share of its Germany-based Opel brand.

But a sprawling automaker producing and selling vehicles on six continents, be it GM or its chief competition, cannot float above the market turmoil or hope that would-be customers don't notice the froth around them.

In a 24-7 wired world, they do. And they can change behavior overnight — a piece of reality GM and others need to manage because they cannot change it.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http:\\\staff\27151.