Government to Shed GM Stake, Large Taxpayer Loss Likely

3:19 PM, Dec 19, 2012   |    comments
General Motors world headquarters in Detroit, MI. (Getty Images)
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Nathan Bomey, Detroit Free Press

The plan the U.S. announced Wednesday to sell its remaining 500 million shares of General Motors virtually guarantees a substantial taxpayer loss on the $49.5 billion bailout.

The Treasury Department today said that it will sell all its stock in GM within 12 to 15 months and sell 40% of its stake within weeks, starting with a $5.5 billion deal for GM to buy back 200 million of its shares as soon as next month at $27.50 per share.

The government would have needed about $53 per share for its 26% stake to break even on the bailout. The deal negotiated with GM for the 200 million shares will cut the U.S. stake to 19% but raise the price needed to break even on the remaining 300 million government shares to nearly $70.

GM's agreed-to buyback price of $27.50 per share is a 7.9% premium over Tuesday's closing price of $25.49. The company will record a $400 million charge on its balance sheet in the fourth quarter.

With the deal and other sources -- including funds from GM's IPO and GM loan repayments -- the U.S. has recouped about half the bailout total. That does not, however, include about $20 billion the government put into GM before the 2009 bankruptcy restructuring.

The loss on the GM bailout will dwarf the estimated $1.3 billion loss the government took on the bankruptcy rescue of Chrysler Group and the transfer to Fiat control. The government has said it wants to balance its desire to get out of the auto business with the desire to recover money for taxpayers.

For GM, this begins finally to unwind the restrictions imposed in the bailout and bankruptcy restructuring. The company can start to shed the stigma of being "government motors," which CFO Dan Ammann told reporters today has caused some buyers to avoid GM products.

Said CEO Dan Akerson in a statement, "This announcement is an important step in bringing closure to the successful auto industry rescue; it further removes the perception of government ownership of GM among customers, and it demonstrates confidence in GM's progress and our future."

"From our point of view, this is very attractive to the company and to shareholders," said Ammann. "It obviously brings some clarity and certainty around the U.S. Treasury exit and the timing of that, which has been a question in the marketplace."

Auto industry analysts had been expecting the Treasury to announce a resolution for its GM shares in early 2013. Some analysts have said a share buyback would be warmly received by the market and attract new investors to GM shares who have been scared off by the government's ownership position. And, at one point, shares were trading at $27.56, up 8%, and above the share buyback price.

The government plans to immediately remove some restrictions it placed on GM as part of the bailout using TARP funds. The company now will be allowed to buy corporate aircraft, for example. But the company will continue to have limits on pay for top executives, which some say has made recruiting more difficult.

"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. The government should not be in the business of owning stakes in private companies for an indefinite period of time," said Timothy Massad, U.S. Treasury Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability.

Beyond the politics of the bailout, senior analyst Michelle Krebs says its success in rebuilding the company as a business remains to be seen. "There's no doubt that General Motors is in a better position now than it was four or five years ago, and that's all thanks to the government bailout with taxpayer money," said Krebs. "Still, even with GM buying back its shares, it will be years before we can fully assess the success of the auto bailout. The key is to watch and see if the company falls back into old bad habits."

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