U.S. Treasury Announces GM ‘Exit Strategy’ … Taxpayers To Lose Billions Of Dollars

Treasury announces GM exit strategy; automaker buying 200 million shares from U.S. (The Detroit News, Dec 19, 2012):

Washington — The Obama administration said Wednesday it will sell 200 million shares — or 40 percent of its remaining stake in General Motors Co. — back to the automaker and announced plans to completely exit the Detroit automaker by March 2014.

The Detroit automaker said it will purchase 200 million shares of GM stock held by Treasury for $5.5 billion — or $27.50 per share — nearly $2 above the stock’s closing price on Tuesday. GM shares jumped sharply on the news and were up 7.5 percent to $27.36, or $1.90, early afternoon in very heavy trading.

The U.S. Treasury, after more than a year of refusing to say when it might start selling its remaining stake in GM, said it willannounce a written plan in January to shed its remaining 300 million shares over the next 12 to 15 months, likely in a series of small stock sales.

The Treasury’s move is intended to minimize the impact of the stock sale on the share price — and the government’s state will shrink from 26.5 percent to less than 19 percent — but the exit could be completed far more quickly.

The exit plan may prove to be a boost to GM’s lagging stock price and to some car buyers, who have avoided GM because of the “Government Motors” label.

The exit timetable signals the end of one of the most extraordinary government interventions in the U.S. economy in history — the rescue and partial nationalization of two U.S. automakers and their finance arms supported by two U.S. presidents.

Still, taxpayers will almost certainly lose billions of dollars in the $49.5 billion GM bailout – and the government would need to sell its remaining shares for about $70 each to break even. If the government sold the rest of its stock at current prices, taxpayers would lose more than $13 billion. But profits from the bank and AIG bailouts will largely offset the auto bailout losses.

“The government should not be in the business of owning stakes in private companies for an indefinite period of time,” Assistant Treasury Secretary Tim Massad said in a statement who oversees the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. “Moving to exit our investment in GM within the next 12 to 15 months is consistent with our dual goals of winding down TARP as soon as practicable and protecting taxpayer interests.”

The Treasury has also agreed to waive its ban on GM using corporate aircraft — a condition it imposed on a few companies that got large bailouts in 2008 and 2009 — but government pay restrictions on top executives remain in force.

The restrictions limit most GM executives to no more than $500,000 a year in cash salaries. GM chief financial officer Dan Ammann said the issue is one of “ongoing discussions” between GM and Treasury.

The Treasury is also waiving a “vitality commitment” that required certain U.S. manufacturing volumes — but GM is already exceeding it and expects to continue, the company said.

Despite the government ownership, White House officials insisted they would have no role in GM’s management, though there were some exceptions. In one notable move, the Obama administration vetoed a proposal by GM in 2009 to move its corporate headquarters from Detroit to Warren.

Ammann said the company has “no current plans” to buy or lease corporate aircraft – but company executives have long chafed at the fact they are forced to fly commercial – unlike other top corporate executives.

Ammann declined to discuss when the automaker and Treasury began negotiations about the sale or how it settled on the price. Ammann said GM doesn’t expect to buy the remaining Treasury shares.

GM CEO Dan Akerson told company executives in an email that the move would help end a painful chapter in the automaker’s life that nearly saw the company collapse in late 2008 without emergency government assistance.

“Today, GM and the U.S. Treasury are putting in motion a plan that will begin to close the books on the extraordinary government assistance that saved the company and our industry,” Akerson wrote. “It has never been far from my mind that taxpayers rightfully expected us to change the way we do business in exchange for a second chance.”

GM — which was criticized for corporate arrogance and for a moribund culture — has reshuffled its entire executive lineup since 2009 and made dramatic changes in how it does business.

“We are learning to be humble and to genuinely appreciate every customer,” Akerson wrote.

In a Detroit News interview in 2011, Akerson said GM wasn’t changing fast enough.

“Whoever comes after me; it’s going to be a more important appointment than mine because he or she will have to carry on a cultural revolution here. It’s just like the Communist Party in China in the 1960s, there has to be a cultural revolution here,” he said.

GM — which last month obtained a new $5.5 billion line of credit — said its balance sheet will remain strong, with estimated liquidity of $38 billion at the end of 2012, following the closing of the share buyback.

Several analysts have suggested the company would use some of its liquidity to buy back shares.

“A U.S. Treasury sell-down was increasingly anticipated, although the actions were earlier than we expected and at a lower price,” Peter Nesvold, an analyst with Jefferies & Co. wrote in a research note Wednesday. “The structure was probably more surprising, as it affords a premium to market price for a control stakeholder.”

David Whiston, a senior equity analyst for Morningstar, said he was surprised the government didn’t wait for a $33 a share price, but said investors likely were expecting an announcement following the quick AIG sale.

“This helps with the (“government motors”) stigma, but there will always be a few hard line consumers who will never forgive GM,” he wrote in an email Wednesday. “That doesn’t bother me, as GM still sells plenty of cars and has great product. Some taxpayers will be upset by the loss, but I think those people will never be happy about the situation. Even if the sale had happened at $33 (the IPO price) those same consumers would have criticized Obama and GM.”

The Canadian federal and Ontario governments — which gave GM a separate $10 billion bailout — still hold about 9 percent of GM’s shares. Canadian officials said in Toronto they have no immediate plans to sell.

The announcement comes exactly four years to the day that President George W. Bush announced he would rescue GM and Chrysler with a $17.4 billion bailout in December 2008 using the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Bush stepped in after Congress failed to act. He added $7.5 billion for GM and Chrysler’s auto finance arms and President Obama added $60 billion to the $85 billion auto bailout.

“The auto industry rescue helped save more than a million jobs during a severe economic crisis, but TARP was always meant to be a temporary, emergency program,” Massad said.

Last week, the Treasury exited another major TARP recipient AIG.

GM stock is still trading far below its November 2010 initial public offering at $33 a share.

The repurchase price of $27.50 per share represents a 7.9 percent premium. The share buyback is expected to close by the end of the year.

The Treasury initially owned nearly 61 percent of GM as part of the bailout as it swapped about $42 billion of the loans for stock in the reorganized company after it exited bankruptcy in July 2009.

The Obama administration forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy as a condition of getting additional government aid. The administration forced out GM CEO Rick Wagoner and forced a tie-up with Fiat SpA.

The Treasury has said it expects to lose $24.3 billion on the $85 billion auto bailout.

Treasury also holds a 74 percent stake in Ally Financial Inc., the Detroit-based auto lender, as part of a $17.2 billion bailout.

Last year, the government exited Chrysler Group LLC and booked a $1.3 billion loss on its $12.5 billion bailout.

The government had planned an initial public offering of Ally in 2011 but put it on hold because of market conditions. Any IPO won’t occur until after Ally’s troubled mortgage unit ResCap completes its bankruptcy restructuring.

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