GM Sets May 18 North American Restart as Profit Tops Estimates

GM Sets May 18 North American Restart as Profit Tops Estimates
A new 2020 Chevrolet Silverado HD is shown on the assembly line at the General Motors Flint Assembly Plant in Flint, Michigan, on Feb. 5, 2019. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

DETROIT—General Motors Co on Wednesday outlined plans for a May 18 restart of most of its North American plants shut down by the coronavirus pandemic as it reported a stronger than expected quarterly profit, sending its shares up 7.8 percent in premarket trading.

The No. 1 U.S. automaker had previously suspended its 2020 profit outlook because of uncertainty over the outbreak and did not provide an update on Wednesday.

“With the level of uncertainty out there, it’s too early to tell until the economy starts to open up,” Chief Financial Officer Dhivya Suryadevara told reporters.

But she said that “the second quarter will be the hardest hit” with North American production shuttered for much of the period. She said the CCP virus pandemic had reduced the automaker’s first-quarter profit by $1.4 billion.

The Detroit automaker has slashed costs and made other moves during the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus outbreak, including suspending its dividend and share buybacks, closing its Maven car-sharing unit, delaying work on some product programs, reducing marketing budgets, and cutting white-collar workers’ salaries. It also added $16 billion to its cash position by drawing down credit lines.

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The General Motors Co. headquarters is seen in Detroit, Michigan, from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, on Jan. 11, 2019. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

GM said ended the first quarter with $33.4 billion in automotive cash, including an approximately $16 billion drawdown from its revolving credit facilities.

One ray of hope has been China, where the pandemic began but where GM has resumed production. While first-quarter sales there fell 43 percent, they rebounded to grow by double digits in April. That offers hope for the U.S. market, where sales declined 7 percent in the first quarter.

“We’re certainly seeing green shoots in China,” CFO Suryadevara said. “Production has completely restarted and the dealers are seeing increased traffic; sales are improving.”

In the U.S. market, the bright spot is pickup trucks.

GM CFO Suryadevara said that prior to March the truck segment accounted for 13-14 percent of total vehicle sales, which jumped to 18 percent in March and an estimated 21 percent in April.

“Obviously, truck is our strong suit,” she said. “That’s something we’re going to capitalize as we restart.”

U.S. automotive production ground to a halt in March as the number of COVID-19 infections grew rapidly. President Donald Trump is pushing Americans to get back to work and several U.S. states to reopen their economies, the focus in the auto sector has shifted to when production can safely restart.

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President Donald Trump at American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, Mich., with General Motors CEO Mary Barra and other auto industry executives on March 15, 2017. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) are aiming to resume production some time in May and are negotiating with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which represents their U.S. hourly workers, about when and how to safely restart.

On Tuesday, the United Auto Workers union, which represents GM’s U.S. hourly workers in its plants, gave its tacit approval for the Detroit automakers to restart production on May 18.

FCA said on Tuesday it expects most of its North American plants to reopen by May 18. Ford has not announced a restart date.

In its restart playbook, GM’s strategy relies heavily on social distancing, temperature checks, regular sanitizing, improved plant ventilation and use of personal protective equipment.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer previously extended the state’s stay-at-home order through May 15 but lifted restrictions for some businesses other than manufacturing. Neighboring Ohio allowed manufacturing to resume on Monday.

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General Motors Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra poses with Democratic Representative Elissa Slotkin and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer at the GM Orion Assembly Plant in Lake Orion, Michigan, on March 22, 2019. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Once production resumes, the question will be how fast U.S. demand rebounds, with some dealers expecting big discounts to lure consumers back to showroom floors.

Some industry officials have said some level of government stimulus for the U.S. auto sector will be needed for consumers once the pandemic recedes.

During the Great Recession of 2008-09, the U.S. government rolled out a “cash for clunkers” program, which offered consumers rebates of up to $4,500 to trade in older gas guzzlers.

GM posted net income attributable to common stockholders of $247 million or 17 cents per share, down more than 88 percent from $2.12 billion or $1.48 per share in the same period in 2019. Excluding one-time items, GM reported 62 cents per share, well above the 30 cents per share expected by Wall Street analysts.

By Nick Carey and Ben Klayman

NTD staff contributed to this report.