Saturday, 24 July 2010

Micro Level Trends - New GM & AmeriCredit – Scuppering Hard Won Investor Credibility.

Having given GM the benefit of the doubt, by ranking it higher than FIAT in the Western 8 company commentaries, investment-auto-motives revisits the New GM story given recent events.

Since its emergence from fast-track Chapter 11, the intention was that General Motors could demonstrate itself as a very different beast. Value-creation versus previous value destruction.

Yet a year on having enjoyed the clunkers stimulus mini-boom that saw it post first time promised profits, the enterprise's purchase of AmeriCredit – the finance company – for $3.5bn shows a return to its old ways of boosting sales volume via the attraction of sub-prime credit rated buyers.

Yes the cost is only one-tenth of its buoyant cash reserves, and it is the norm for an auto-player to exercise captive finance capabilities, and the ability to access ever wider-opening B2B and B2C credit windows would be typically expected of a large VM. But given New GM's position as the 'prodigal son' in what are still far from normal – indeed 'new norm' conditions – is it not scuppering its own supposed success story, even if the deal does provide avenues to Canadian and Lease markets?

There has been recent mention that only 4% of current US vehicle sales are to sub-prime buyers, no doubt reflecting the reality of 2008/9 when credit availability to all but the best rated was very limited. Yet there has also been industry rumour that even well positioned, nominally reputable Honda sells 21% of its vehicles in N.A to poorly rated customers. That press quoted figure may well have been relative prior to the credit-crunch.

Yet the mid-point of these two capital market condition extremes suggests that - as today - with easier flowing credit up to 15% of the vehicle market consists of less reputable customers.

[NB the recent up-tick in Harley Davidson sales will have been influenced by such amenable credit availability].

That said, just over an eighth of the TIV is a large slice, and something which would undoubtedly provide additional boost to The New General, but given that GM seeks to float by year-end it's P&L and Balance Sheet should be proving itself to investors. This done so without cash-flows and bottom lines being partially propped up by fringe sales which in the not so distant past have proven to be the thin end of a problematic wedge generated by negative feedback loops regards vehicle residual values. The production and inventory levels are seismically shifted downward, but the inadvertent process of 'pulling the rug from under itself' still stands up to scrutiny.

As the much publicised IPO deadline date approaches New GM will be trying every trick in the book to boost sales – including Ed Whitacre's efforts to have its NomAds and Book-Runners agree to purchase GM vehicles as part of their business terms. This is understandable as a demonstration of inter-company unity between client and service provider, and obviously provides higher profile ownership demographics for GM. But metaphorically scrapping the 'bottom of the barrel' so soon after 're-birth' might be judged by many an investor (institutional and individuals) as something to query if indeed that 15% is needed to provide demonstrable margin above the operating overhead.

The view might be that Washington is recouping part of its bail-out expenditure by in effect passing the still largely unproven auto-parcel to not only investors, but GM customers themselves who are literally buying back into the company with good faith under the belief that the old ways are gone and GM is part of the new American economic era.

Of course the counter-point argument to such tabled negativity is that given the recent poor H1 reporting fortunes of much of the financial sector, the ability to acquire a fully fledged, legally enabled captive finance house here and now is a good move. And in so much investment-auto-motives would not disagree. Presuming the avoidance of any double-dip recession, given the historical precedent and believing in slow but stable economic traction, then building-up renewed captive finance capabilities that extend customer reach and can be exploited to cross-sell vis a vis Alley (with its Bank status) undoubtedly makes complete sense.

But what must be clearly highlighted to the world at large, especially so in the IPO count-down, is the Q3 & Q4 sales mix by customer credit rating. At the very least to demonstrate that AmeriCredit truly 'only' truly represents that reported fringe 4%. Only by doing so and convincingly demonstrating that sub-prime accounts for a very small percentage of financing deals will New GM maintain any form of very necessary credibility.

But in the desire to exploit the new captive finance ability the temptation to super-charge sales through massaged deals may prove very tempting. Especially so if it can prompt poor rated buyers to use Ally (itself under pressure to lend) for access to smaller sized upfront deposit sums for AmeriCredit. In effect on the books of the 2 companies themselves, cross-balancing the vehicle purchase deal; akin to an accumulator.

But, at the broader level, investment-auto-motives poses the question that begs “ to what extent has the AmeriCredit purchase been politically generated?” - given that it only provides a supposed 4% sales boost.

This period of renewed US economic unease would undoubtedly be exacerbated if the folks on Main Street were to retract even the limited current spend behavior which is keeping the economy ticking over; albeit at a much reduced rate. The feel good factor is all important, and it is well known that during times of economic strain it is the far more positively elastic consumptive patterns of society's lower ranks that maintains the consumptive flow. Where the middle-classes pull in their horns, others with less of a responsible stake-holder mentality seize the moment: as demonstrated by a portion of 'cash for clunkers' beneficiaries.

Thus could the AmeriCredit purchase by GM – which the name in itself smacks of the country's (delusional) liquidity well-being – have been fully condoned by Washington? Or even prompted by it, given its (and Canada's) desire to monetise and partially exit their combined 72% equity hold in New GM?

It all my look good in the short-term for GM, AmeriCredit, (Ally) and Washington D.C., but is there not a danger that instead it will be consumers and business that are left 'holding a possibly crying baby' in the short to medium term?

In which case, the desperate desire to re-inflate the economy on sound principles, stays little more than circular rhetoric. Investors – that bedrock of the economy – need convincing, and so in this case there must be a reversal of the old GM adage.

Today, what is good for the American economy must set the precedent for the ongoing transformation of New GM (as seen with Not to recognise this truism and the measures required that underpin it would be a disservice to investors, the company and public alike.