As GM Cruises Toward Government Deadline, U.S. Automakers Must Learn to Deal With a Permanently Smaller Market

By William Patalon III
Executive Editor
Money Morning/The Money Map Report

General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GM) is closing in quickly on its June 1 deadline to finish overhauling its operations, or opt for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Because that deadline is actually one week from yesterday (Monday), analysts and investors will be watching GM closely this week.

No matter which path GM chooses – conventional restructuring or bankruptcy – the U.S. Big Three of GM, Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) and Chrysler LLC will have to adjust to the U.S. auto market’s post-financial-crisis “new reality.” Automakers will sell only 10 million cars and trucks in the U.S. market this year, the worst in at least 3 decades – and roughly 38% less than the 16 million vehicles that were sold in the United States annually in recent years before the financial collapse caused an accompanying collapse in auto sales.

Part of the reason for the slump in new vehicle sales is that consumers are increasingly turning to used cars. Pre-owned car sales are up 10% this year over last, as credit availability increases, but buyers focus on affordability. In fact, according to the most-recent report, used-car sales jumped in April, and the trend is expected to continue at least until the middle of the year as pent-up demand for affordable, pre-owned vehicles jacked up the used-vehicle segment of the auto marketplace.

Market Matters     

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner put his most optimistic face forward in assessing the progress with the bank bailout plan. Geithner pointed out that the 19 stressed-tested banks have already raise $56 billion in capital [including Bank of America Corp.’s (NYSE: BAC) $13.5 billion stock offering] and several could begin to pay back Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) money shortly.  He also indicated that the public-private partnership to remove “toxic” assets from banks’ books should be up and running in the next month-and-a-half, a move that may instill greater confidence in the financial markets.

However, an analysis by The Wall Street Journal rained on Geithner’s parade by estimating that small and mid-sized banks could face losses on bad commercial real estate loans of $100 billion by year-end 2010. A Money Morning investigation of the looming commercial real estate crisis predicted that this sector of the real-estate market would pose major problems for the U.S. economic recovery.

Meanwhile, GMAC LLC may be close to receiving a fresh $7 billion in new (bailout) money as the government continues to seek ways to rescue the auto industry.  GM reached an agreement with its main union (UAW) that would reduce retiree benefits and overall labor costs to make them comparable to those of their foreign rivals. 

As another negative earnings season comes to a close, investors searched long and hard for a bright spot – any bright spot.  With most Standard & Poor’s 500 Index companies reporting, earnings plunged more than 30% in the first quarter and are on track to fall 13% for the full year, the worst annual performance in six years.

Still, Thomson Reuters PLC (Nasdaq ADR: TRIN) says that a consensus of sell-side analysts projects a 29% increase in earnings in 2010 as cost-cutting measures pay off and relative results begin to look more attractive.

The Lowes Cos. Inc. (NYSE: LOW) reported better-than-expected quarterly profits and raised its outlook for the year, but The Home Depot Inc. (NYSE: HD) saw its numbers disappoint investors who were looking for stronger signs from the home improvement giant.  Likewise, Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) reported weaker earnings, and that spawned renewed pessimism for the high-tech sector.

On a brighter note, retailers Sears Holdings Corp. (Nasdaq: SHLD) and Aeropostale Inc. (NYSE: ARO) reported better-than-expected quarterly profits.  Ratings upgrades brought early promise as Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) boosted its forecast on homebuilder Lennar Corp. (NYSE: LEN); Deutsche Bank AG (NYSE: DB) raised its views on McDonalds Corp. (NYSE: MCD); and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) made Bank of America a “Buy.”  However, S&P warned it may downgrade the United Kingdom’s debt below AAA due to ongoing economic obstacles, a development that prompted others to wonder if U.S. securities could face similar dire possibilities.   

Crude oil surged past $62 a barrel on lower inventory data and gasoline climbed above $2.36 a gallon heading into the Memorial Day holiday weekend, a far cry from the $3.80 of this time last year – although it was 30 cents higher than late April levels.                       

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Economically Speaking

While Geithner was “spinning” the bailout progress in the most favorable light possible, the U.S. Federal Reserve meeting minutes painted a picture of a more sluggish economy than most had predicted just three months ago.  In fact, the policymakers negatively revised their projections for economic contraction and warned that the unemployment rate could push toward 10% by the end of the year.  Still, central bank Chairman Ben S. Bernanke believes improvements are on the way as the impact of the Obama administration stimulus package aids in the recovery over the year’s second half. Furthermore, the Fed stands prepared to buy more U.S. Treasury and mortgage-related securities should such moves be deemed beneficial.

In the “it could be worse” category, Mexico (-21.5%), Japan (-15.2%), and Germany (-14.4%) each reported severe economic declines (as measured by gross domestic product, or GDP), as these three primary U.S. trading partners suffered the ill effects of the lower domestic demand for foreign-made goods and services. 

Though the economic calendar was rather light during the week, some positive signs did emerge from deep within the numbers.  While analysts were surprised by a decline in April housing starts, the losses stemmed from a reduction in apartment activity, and single-family construction actually jumped by almost 3%, its second consecutive positive monthly showing.

Additionally, a private survey of the nation’s construction professionals depicted that homebuilder sentiment soared to its highest level in eight months, another sign that the prolonged housing slump may finally be nearing an end.

Finally, leading economic indicators, a predictive index that forecasts activity for the ensuing six months, turned positive after six straight down months.  Unfortunately, labor continued to struggle as the number of folks who have been receiving unemployment benefits for over a week hit a new record high.  While the economy definitely seems to be moving past the dreaded recession, any recovery will be limited as long as the labor picture remains weak and employees hold off on purchases until their job situations become more stable.  And the risk of a “double-dip” downturn remains somewhat high.

Weekly Economic Calendar

Date Release Comments
May 19 Housing Starts (04/09) Gains in single family offset by declines in apartments
May 20 Fed Policy Meeting Minutes Signs of economic improvement though slow recovery
May 21 Initial Jobless Claims (05/16/09) Continuing claims still at record highs
  Leading Eco. Indicators (04/09) Better than expected increased in forecasting index
The Week Ahead    
May 26 Consumer Confidence (05/09)  
May 27 Existing Homes Sales (04/09)  
May 28 Durable Goods Orders (04/09)  
  Initial Jobless Claims (05/23/09)  
  New Home Sales (04/09)  
May 29 GDP – Qtr 1 (revised)  

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About the Author

Before he moved into the investment-research business in 2005, William (Bill) Patalon III spent 22 years as an award-winning financial reporter, columnist, and editor. Today he is the Executive Editor and Senior Research Analyst for Money Morning at Money Map Press.

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