As if that werent enough, General Motors appears to be squandering the biggest benefit of that bankruptcy: its formerly clean balance sheet. Its total liabilities continue to climb, up to nearly $163 billion as of the end of March, from closer to $124 billion at the end of 2013. While General Motors isnt exactly in imminent danger of another bankruptcy, its current actions bear a striking resemblance to the mistakes that brought it down in the first place.
My Foolish colleague John Rosevear may very well point to General Motors low trailing P/E ratio and strong dividend yield as reasons to believe that its stock is value-priced. Remember, though, that even without being haunted by the echo of its prior misdeeds, the car industry remains a cyclical one. Buying a cyclical company when its stock looks cheap based on backward-looking metrics is often a great way to lose money.
Ultimately, its a companys future prospects, not its recent earnings, that drive its stock price. Unless General Motors proves itself capable of breaking free from the issues that caused its 2009 bankruptcy in the first place, its future simply looks too cloudy for me to justify investing my money.
Not surprisingly, as a GM shareholder and bull, I think my esteemed Foolish colleague is wrong on nearly all counts. While I do agree that the US new-vehicle market might be near its peak (and thus headed for a decline), I think that decline is already priced into the stock. I also agree that we buy stocks because of a companys future prospects -- and that makes GM a buy right now, because todays GM is a very well-managed company on a path to strong profit growth over the next several years, whether the US market dips or not.
Want proof that GM has changed? Heres a big one: The latest JD Power Vehicle Dependability Study ranks GMs quality right up there with Toyotas, and ahead of Hondas. While Chuck is correct that GM is making hay on the current strong global (not just US) demand for SUVs and trucks, CEO Mary Barra isnt ignoring the vast changes expected to come to the auto business over the next several years. Far from it: GM has surged to the forefront of self-driving research, it will beat Tesla Motors to market with an affordable long-range electric car, and its making big investments to become a major player in ridesharing and ride-hailing.
A lot of big automakers talk about becoming mobility companies in the future. GM is doing it now.
More to the point for investors, Barra has set in motion a comprehensive plan to boost GMs profit significantly by early next decade. Already, profit margins have increased in the US, and GMs long-suffering European unit is finally being transformed into a durable profit center. Meanwhile, GM once again leads Chinas new-car market, and its China unit continues to post very strong margins.
As for that total liabilities figure, many investors new to automakers make the same mistake that Chuck did. Most of that eye-popping figure isnt GM debt, its the liabilities on the balance sheet of its in-house bank. Banks borrow money from other institutions and lend it to their customers at a profit. That borrowed money shows up as liabilities, but itll be repaid as the loans made by GM Financial are repaid. Its climbing because GM is working to boost that (profitable) arm of its business. The total debt attributable to GMs auto business -- GMs real debt -- was just $10.8 billion at the end of the first quarter, well below its $18.5 billion in cash. If and when times get tough, GM has an additional $12.1 billion in available credit lines to draw on. GMs balance sheet is in terrific shape.
Despite all that, and despite still-rising sales in the US, Europe, and China, GM is priced right now at less than five times its trailing-12-month earnings, versus the 10 to 12 times wed normally expect with a big automaker. (And yes, that low price means that GMs dividend yield is right around 5%.) But I think GM is cheap right now because investors have already priced in a decline in the US new-vehicle market, as well as uncertainty in China. But given the progress that GM has already made on Barras profit growth plan, and its outstanding efforts to keep pace with (or jump ahead of) the Silicon Valley disruptors, I think all that uncertainty just means that GM is a terrific buy at current prices for a long-term-minded investor.