Obama’s GM Quagmire

Media are reporting this morning that the Treasury has decided to hold off on selling any of its remaining 500 million shares of General Motors stock until at least July. The Obama administration had hoped to divest as soon as possible  after May 22, but GM’s stock price hasn’t been cooperating.

As much as the president doesn’t want the odor of nationalization following him on the campaign trail, the administration is equally concerned about having to explain why it took a $10 billion to $20 billion direct loss by divesting when it did. By deferring sales until July, the administration presumably is hoping for a stock price boost from second quarter earnings. But that is unlikely for several reasons, which I explained in the Daily Caller yesterday. Here’s the gist in a few passages from that op-ed:

The soonest the U.S. Treasury can sell the remaining 500 million shares (according to terms of the initial public offering) is May 22, but the administration would also like to “make the taxpayers whole.” The problem for the president on that score is that the stock price — even in the wake of this week’s earnings report — isn’t cooperating. As of this morning’s opening bell, GM stock was valued at $31.07 per share. If all of the 500 million remaining publicly-owned shares could be sold at that price, the Treasury would net less than $16 billion. Add that to the $23 billion raised from the initial public offering last November, and the “direct” public loss on GM is about $11 billion — calculated as a $50 billion outlay minus a $39 billion return.

To net $50 billion, those 500 million public shares must be sold at an average price of just over $53 — a virtual impossibility anytime soon. Why? The most significant factor suppressing the stock value is the market’s knowledge that the largest single holder of GM stock wants to unload about 500 million shares in the short term. That fact will continue to trump any positive news about GM and its profit potential, not that such news should be expected.

Projections about gasoline prices vary, but as long as prices at the pump remain in the $4 range, GM is going to suffer. Among major automakers, GM is most exposed to the downside of high gasoline prices. Despite all of the subsidies and all of the hoopla over the Chevy Volt (only 1,700 units have been sold through April 2011) and the Chevy Cruse (now subject to a steering column recall that won’t help repair negative quality perceptions), GM does not have much of a competitive presence in the small car market. Though GM held the largest overall U.S. market share in 2010, it had the smallest share (8.4%) of the small car market, which is where the demand will be if high gas prices persist. GM will certainly have to do better in that segment once the federally mandated average fleet fuel efficiency standards rise to 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016.

Deservedly reaping what it sowed, the administration finds itself in an unenviable position. It can entirely divest of GM in the short term at what would likely be a $10-to-$15 billion taxpayer loss (the stock price will drop if 500 million shares are put up for sale in a short period) and face the ire of an increasingly cost- and budget-conscious electorate. Or the administration can hold onto the stock, hoping against hope that GM experiences economic fortunes good enough to more than compensate for the stock price-suppressing effect of the market’s knowledge of an imminent massive sale, while contending with accusations of market meddling and industrial policy.

Or, the administration can do what it is going to do: First, lower expectations that the taxpayer will ever recover $50 billion. Here’s a recent statement by Tim Geithner: “We’re going to lose money in the auto industry… We didn’t do these things to maximize return. We did them to save jobs. The biggest impact of these programs was in the millions of jobs saved.” That’s a safe counterfactual, since it can never be tested or proved. (There are 225,000 fewer jobs in the auto industry as of March 2011 than there were in November 2008, when the bailout process began.)

Second, the administration will argue that the Obama administration is only on the hook for $40 billion (the first $10 billion having come from Bush). In a post-IPO, November 2010 statement revealing of a man less concerned with the nation’s finances than his own political prospects, President Obama asserted: “American taxpayers are now positioned to recover more than my administration invested in GM, and that’s a good thing.” (My emphasis).

The administration should divest as soon as possible, without regard to the stock price. Keeping the government’s tentacles around a large firm in an important industry will keep the door open wider to industrial policy and will deter market-driven decision-making throughout the industry, possibly keeping the brakes on the recovery. Yes, there will be a significant loss to taxpayers. But the right lesson to learn from this chapter in history is that government interventions carry real economic costs.