Wednesday, April 7, 2010

General Motors claims profit -- but only if discounts its expenses

Maybe it was naive to have assumed that General Motors, the top U.S. automaker, would have been required to stop playing games and be upfront about its finances as a condition of being saved from the junkyard by billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers. Well, at least the naivete was short-lived. Today's release of its first detailed financial statement since emerging from bankruptcy protection shows that GM has not forgotten the sleight-of-hand that enabled it to pretend to be solvent for years despite epic mismanagement that caused what was then the world's largest automaker into bankruptcy. Focusing on what it called "positive cash flow of $1 billion since its bankruptcy," GM -- now known as General Motors Co., instead of General Motors Corp. -- said it wasn't counting the more than $4 billion it has to spend to settle with the United Auto Workers union to pay with retiree health benefits, according to the New York Times. If this is an example of what the company called its "fresh start" accounting principles since bankruptcy, it looks like there was nothing learned from its near-collapse as well as nothing to be learned from its official reports. Maybe what GM is doing is standard practice for bailed-out businesses, but it's no more reassuring -- especially since the company is now more than 60 percent owned by the U.S. government. “We don’t need to make that much improvement to get to profitability,” GM Chief Financial Officer Christopher Liddell told analysts and reports in a conference call, the Times said. “It’s getting close to break-even if you get rid of those one-off items that happened in the fourth quarter.” Well, any company would post a profit if it left losses off its balance sheet, right? But would that paint an accurate picture of its financial health? Still, many analysts said GM was considerably healthier than a year ago. “It would be a really impressive achievement if they were able to make a profit,” Rebecca Lindland of IHS Global Insight told the Times. “They’ve been able to do an awful lot, and all of those things should lead to a profitable picture.” GM said it would finish repaying $8.3 billion in loans from the U.S. and Canadian governments by June. The other U.S. automaker that took billions in bailout cash from the government, Chrysler Corp., is expected to release its first financial statement since its bankruptcy later this month, the Times said. Narayanan Jayaraman, a finance professor from Georgia Tech's College of Management, told the Times that he thought GM's prospects were better than Chrysler's. “Between G.M. and Chrysler, if I had to place a bet, I would place it heavily on G.M.,” Jayaraman said. “They seem to be doing the right things. They have some headwinds, so help from the economy would be good, but even in the absence of that they can do well.” He said the government could begin selling the millions of dollars in GM shares no earlier than 2011, after GM has "two or three quarters of profitability." GM's bankruptcy wiped out $83 billion in liabilities, the Times said.

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