GM: Pressure, Stakes Rise

 
 
By Reuters -  |  Posted 2008-07-15
 
 
 

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Corp on Tuesday announced a plan to cut costs by $10 billion, suspend its common stock dividend and sell up to $4 billion in assets in a bid to shore up cash and survive a deep industry slump.

The hurried restructuring, GM's second in just six weeks, was forced by high fuel prices, a consumer shift away from low-mileage trucks, the weakest U.S. auto sales in a decade, and growing investor doubts about the automaker's ability to ride out the downturn.

GM, which has lost $51 billion over the past three years as it has cut jobs and closed plants, said the steps were aimed at addressing deepening concerns that have driven its stock price to 54-year lows and raised the cost of insuring its debt against default.

"What we saw was an even decidedly more hostile environment in the capital markets," GM President and Chief Operating Officer Fritz Henderson told reporters. "You saw financial markets almost seize up."

The automaker said it would cut white-collar costs by 20 percent, a step expected to mean the loss of thousands of jobs among the 40,000 salaried workers GM employs in North America.

GM shares rose nearly 7 percent on the restructuring news but remain down about 60 percent this year. Since Chief Executive Rick Wagoner took over in 2000, the shares have fallen in value about 80 percent.

Analysts said GM's plan, intended to raise $15 billion in liquidity through 2009, addressed the most urgent Wall Street concerns about pressure on its $24 billion in remaining cash.

But they cautioned that the company's turnaround still hinged on a recovery in the U.S. economy and on GM's ability to sell more fuel-efficient passenger cars, a market now dominated by foreign makers led by Toyota Motor Corp.

GM has also faced criticism for restructuring steps since 2005 that have consistently fallen short of what was required given the downward spiral in its results.

"We have to see better demand for automobiles, for cars and trucks, in order for the liquidity crisis to be put to bed," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer at Solaris Asset Management in New York. "They're burning through about $3 billion in cash a quarter. The cash drain has to stop at some point or GM has larger problems."

GM said it would save $10 billion in cash through 2009 through a series of steps including cuts to white-collar jobs and retiree health-care and an elimination of executive bonuses for 2008.

Capital spending would be cut by $1.5 billion, and GM would accelerate plant closures announced last month, as it aims to move its vehicle line-up away from a reliance on SUVs and light trucks.

Lehman Brothers analyst Brian Johnson called the cost-cutting targets "relatively credible" but said the overall plan fell short of a vision for renewal.

"The announcements offered little sense of a 'new' GM strategy or shift in the organizational culture that might set the stage for a more dramatic reinvention," he said in a note to clients.

GM, which has not given a timeline for returning to profitability, warned it would post a "substantial" second-quarter loss, including charges related to supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc and 49 percent owned finance company GMAC.

PRESSURE, STAKES ON THE RISE

GM has been under intensifying pressure to cut costs and raise capital because of the slump in U.S. auto sales that drove its first-half sales down 16 percent.

In early June, GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner announced the company would close four North American truck plants and try to sell its Hummer SUV brand in response to higher gasoline prices.

But market sentiment has darkened on GM in the weeks since that announcement, with most analysts no longer expecting a recovery in U.S. auto sales in 2009.

By identifying $10 billion in cost-cutting as the central element in its restructuring, GM believes it can rely mostly on "self-help" rather than the capital markets to shore up liquidity, executives said.

At the same time, GM set an initial target of raising just $2 billion to $3 billion in new financing -- far more limited than some analysts had expected. Wagoner said the automaker could borrow more if debt markets recovered.

But Goldman Sachs analyst Patrick Archambault said the structure of GM's plan puts pressure squarely on Wagoner and his leadership team to deliver.

"GM's current plan puts a lot of emphasis on delivering cash savings from operating measures, and in the current environment investors remain skeptical on GM's ability to execute," he said.

Wagoner said GM's steps would provide it with ample liquidity through 2009, even assuming a continued weak U.S. market crimped by high oil prices.

GM said it had retained advisers to look at asset sales expected to raise $2 billion to $4 billion. Executives said potential buyers had already expressed interest in the military-derived Hummer brand, but they gave no details.

GM will begin capturing savings from a cost-cutting deal with the United Auto Workers union in 2010. In a significant concession, union leadership quietly approved a deferral of $1.7 billion that had been scheduled for payment to a health care trust aligned with the UAW in 2008 and 2009, GM said.

That deferred payment means GM's major union will be effectively loaning it money at 9 percent interest until the deferred payments to the health care account are made.

(Reporting by Kevin Krolicki; editing by John Wallace and Gerald E. McCormick)