GM sees better '06, stock still falls
Automaker sets long-term cost-cut targets, but does not give guidance on return to profitability.
By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( - General Motors Corp. told investors Friday that it expects improved financial performance this year and further gains in 2007, but its stock fell further as executives at the embattled automaker still did not give any guidance on results or when it expects to return to profitability.

Company officials gave relatively little new detail about GM's financial position about two weeks ahead of its scheduled release of fourth quarter results. But GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner made his most detailed argument yet against speculation that the troubled No .1 automaker is heading toward a bankruptcy court filing.

GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner made a detailed argument against the troubled automaker filing for bankruptcy in a talk with analysts Friday.
GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner made a detailed argument against the troubled automaker filing for bankruptcy in a talk with analysts Friday.

The company did announce that its profitable GMAC unit would take a non-cash goodwill impairment charge of approximately $450 million related to its 1999 purchase of the commercial finance business of the Bank of New York. But the company said that even with that charge GMAC expects to top its target for 2005 earnings and to pay a $2.5 billion cash dividend to GM for the year.

The automaker also laid out a goal of reducing its structural costs as a percent of revenue to 25 percent in 2010 from the current level of about 34 percent across its worldwide operations. It said it expects to make "a big improvement" in this measure in 2006, and for costs to be in the high 20-percent range by 2007.

But it said projections about 2006 results were impossible due to uncertainty about negotiations regarding obligations to former employees at bankrupt auto parts maker Delphi, the potential sale of an equity stake in GMAC, and the timing of implementing health care cost cuts negotiated last year with the United Auto Workers.

GM lost a total of $3.8 billion in the first nine months of 2005. Excluding special items, the company lost $2.2 billion, or $3.96 a share. Analysts surveyed by earnings tracker First Call forecast that it lost another 15 cents a share in the fourth quarter excluding items.

Analysts are forecasting a profit of 91 cents a share in 2006, although that includes results from its profitable GMAC. But GM is looking to sell a majority stake in the unit due to its downgrade into junk bond status in 2005, and that sale, if it takes place, will reduce the income stream from the finance arm.

Shares of GM (down $0.39 to $20.57, Research) were off about 2 percent in early afternoon trading Friday, after being higher briefly immediately after the open of trading.

Shares lost more than half their value last year. Wagoner admitted that the company's sharp downturn in profitability and loss of U.S. market share had caused some justified doubt in the stock market, even if GM executives are confident the company is now on course to turn around the business. And he said that until the company resolves issues such as Delphi and the timing of planned cost savings, there will likely be overhang hurting the value of the stock.

Jerry York, an advisor to Kirk Kerkorian, GM's largest individual shareholder, made a call in a speech Tuesday for GM to cut the dividend as well as officer and management pay as part of an effort to win further cost cuts from the United Auto Workers.

Wagoner again declined to comment on plans for the dividend, saying it was in the hands of the company's board, although he did say those conversations would consider the company's liquidity, and the union's expectations of shared sacrifice.

As to whether the company would seek further wage cuts from the union in advance of the expiration of the current contract in September 2007, Wagoner also declined to comment, saying, "I know it's frustrating to everyone, we haven't found it a good way to make progress with the UAW to talk publicly about which way to go. We are in active discussions with the UAW about a broad range of issues. We'll tell you as soon as we can if we get any breakthrough on shared sacrifice or anything else."

In response to another question, he didn't rule out following the course at some other companies, most recently at IBM, and freezing pension plans for the non-union employees at current levels in an effort to move their retirement plans away from traditional set pension payments and to 401(k) plans.

"I think it's fair to say with times we're under, we have to consider all options," he said when asked about the pension plans for salaried workers. "There's a sense of fairness that needs to be followed, though. There's nothing I can tell you today."

Wagoner: Bankruptcy would hurt GM sales

Wagoner has repeatedly denied speculation that the company is planning to follow Delphi into seeking bankruptcy court protections.

Friday he gave the most detailed argument yet as to why that would be a bad strategy for GM to follow, when an analyst asked why GM wouldn't use a bankruptcy to shed its long-term pension obligations and negotiate sharp reductions in labor costs and other obligations to union employees, a strategy Delphi is now using.

He responded that unlike Delphi, the GM pension plans are overfunded by about $6 billion, after an investment return of about 13 percent last year on plan assets. He said the track record for negotiating union concessions while in bankruptcy is "mixed" even though the company has leverage in those talks to ask the bankruptcy court to void existing labor contracts.

Beyond those issues, Wagoner argued GM would be hurt in the market place by a bankruptcy filing.

"They sell to relatively few number of sophisticated buyers," he said, referring to the parts maker. "We sell to millions of people around the world with a wide range of choices."

And Wagoner argued that GM's sales would take far more of a hit than do airlines when they file for bankruptcy.

"Their customers are spending a few hundred dollars for a ticket they're going to use in a couple of weeks," he said. "Ours are spending $40,000 on a car they're going to use the next five years. They're looking for continued support."

And Wagoner said that a loss in sales that could accompany a bankruptcy filing would make returning to profitability far more difficult.

"If we learned anything from year 2005, it is extremely difficult when revenue slides to slash cost in line with revenue," he said.


For a closer look at Kerkorian's and York's calls for more rapid changes at GM, click here.

For a look at GM's plans to cut car prices, click hereTop of page

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