Video: GM CEO on results

updated 11/7/2007 5:02:28 PM ET 2007-11-07T22:02:28

It’s hard to ignore the second largest quarterly loss in U.S. history.

But General Motors Corp.’s record $39 billion loss on a charge involving unused tax credits was only one piece of dire news for the world’s largest car company.

GM is hemorrhaging money, particularly in North America, and the outlook for 2008 and beyond is bleak. A soft U.S. market, high gas prices, the housing slump and jittery consumers will hamper the automaker’s restructuring efforts, industry analysts said. GM reported the latest loss Wednesday.

“We continue to expect the fundamentals to worsen before they improve,” Bear Stearns analyst Peter Nesvold said in a note to analysts.

GM’s third-quarter loss of $39 billion was the second-worst quarterly net loss in U.S. corporate history under generally accepted accounting principles, said Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst for Standard & Poor’s. The loss was exceeded only by AOL Time Warner’s $44.9 billion, or $10.04 per share loss, in the fourth quarter of 2002, he said.

GM attributed most of the third-quarter loss to a $38.6 billion noncash charge related to accumulated deferred tax credits in the U.S., Canada and Germany. Accounting rules require companies to write down the value of such credits if they have scant prospects for a return to profitability in the near term.

Reaction was swift. GM shares fell nearly 5 percent, or $1.67, to $34.48. S&P cut GM’s 12-month target price by $7 to $32, while Moody’s Investors Service downgraded its outlook on GM from positive to stable.

The pain was all the more acute with Toyota Motor Corp.’s announcement Wednesday that its profit for the fiscal second quarter rose 11 percent to a company record $4 billion. Toyota and GM are vying for the title of world’s largest automaker by sales this year.

S&P auto analyst Efraim Levy said the weak U.S. auto market changed GM’s near-term outlook significantly. S&P now is forecasting U.S. sales of 16 million vehicles in 2007 and 2008, down from 17 million just five years ago.

“The writedown suggests a cautious outlook by the company,” Levy said. “When you’re trying to turn it around and you have to deal with lower volume at the same time, it’s a chase.”

GM reported an overall loss of $1.6 billion, or $2.80 per share, excluding special items. In addition to the accounting change, special items included a $3.5 billion after-tax gain on the $5.4 billion sale of Allison Transmission in August.

GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner told WWJ-AM in Detroit that the accounting shift won’t have a substantial impact on the business.

“I would stress no impact whatsoever on our cash position, no impact on our ability to use the tax offsets in the future, and from my perspective, really no change whatsoever in our outlook or optimism about the future of getting the business turned around,” he said.

What’s more troubling for GM is continuing losses in North America, where it reported a net loss of $247 million without the charge for the latest quarter. That compares with a net loss of $667 million in the year-ago period.

GM’s chief financial officer, Fritz Henderson, said the company is bullish about its products and the money it will save from a new four-year contract with the United Auto Workers, which was approved by workers last month. An agreement to put GM’s retiree health care liability into a union-run trust won’t affect GM’s books until 2010, but the automaker will see some benefits from the contract starting next year, he said.

“We feel good about our long-term prospects,” he said.

But Henderson wouldn’t predict when GM will return to profitability. He said the company faced numerous headwinds it didn’t predict at the beginning of 2007, including the strength of the Canadian dollar, rapid escalation in the price of steel and other metals and a weaker than expected U.S. market.

GM also reported a loss of $757 million from its 49 percent stake in GMAC Financial Services, due largely to losses at ResCap, GMAC’s mortgage arm.

Henderson said GMAC has been hit by volatility in the mortgage market. ResCap has tightened its underwriting criteria and has moved away from the business responsible for those losses, he said, but the outlook for the unit is uncertain.

There were some bright spots. GM’s sales and profits overseas were strong — volume was up 22 percent in Latin America and 16 percent in Asia.

“International and emerging markets expansion has been very positive for the company, as it establishes a dominant position in large growing markets such as China and India,” said David Kudla, CEO of Mainstay Capital Management, in a note to investors.

He also said GM has reduced its structural costs and produced some recent runaway hits such as the Cadillac CTS and Buick Enclave.

Kevin Tynan, a senior automotive analyst with Argus Research Corp., said GM has been doing a lot of things right, including lowering costly incentives, backing off low-margin fleet sales and reaching the cost-saving agreement with the UAW. GM has cut $8 billion in annual costs and shed more than 34,000 hourly workers since its restructuring began in 2005.

But if the U.S. market stabilizes at 15 million to 16 million vehicles a year, he said, GM will have to make further cuts to be profitable.

The $38.6 billion charge, announced after the stock market closed Tuesday, surprised Wall Street analysts who had expected a relatively small loss excluding special items. Seventeen analysts polled by Thomson Financial expected the company to lose 25 cents per share without the charge. The company’s overall net loss amounted to $68.85 per share, compared with a net loss of $147 million, or 26 cents per share, in the third quarter of last year.

Henderson said accounting rules required the company to take the noncash charge because its cumulative three-year quarterly earnings worsened despite some recent profitable quarters. GM lost $10.6 billion in 2005 and $2 billion last year.

Henderson said GM’s accounting team makes the three-year cumulative loss calculation every quarter and determined it would occur in the third quarter as profitable quarters in 2004 fell out of the three-year time period.

When the company becomes profitable, the tax benefits could still be used, Henderson said.

He said GM was merely following accounting rules and the charge was not an error. The company has been plagued by accounting problems in recent years. In early 2006, the automaker restated financial results from 2000 through 2004 because of a litany of errors. GM’s 2006 earnings also were delayed after it overstated its deferred tax liability.

GMAC formerly was controlled by GM. Cerberus Capital Management LP and other private-equity firms bought a 51 percent stake in GMAC in November 2006, before weakness in the mortgage industry became widely known.

GMAC on Thursday posted a $1.6 billion loss for the third quarter. It included a $2.3 billion loss at ResCap, which offset profits elsewhere.

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