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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – October 5, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Fall colors, Adirondacks, NY – October, 2019 photo by nikhilnagane

You can be forgiven for not focusing this week on the UAW’s strike against GM, which is now in its 19th day. Shares of GM have plunged by double digits since the strike began, mostly because the automobile sector has reported weak sales figures. Wolf Richter reports that:

“New-vehicle deliveries in the US…were…flat, at 4.32 million vehicles in the third quarter. For the nine months, deliveries were down 1.6%. This puts new vehicle sales on track for about 17 million…in 2019, the worst level since 2014, and below 2000….”

So, automobile unit sales are at the same level that they were 20 years ago in 1999-2000. With the strike, GM vehicle production has ceased at nearly all of its North American plants. This hasn’t really hurt GM yet, because they had around 90 days’ sales worth of vehicles in inventory as the strike started. They typically have more like 60 days on hand. So shutting the plants helps work down their inventory bulge.

Back to the strike: Julianne Malveaux reports in the WaPo about how GM betrayed the UAW after the union made sacrifices when GM nearly folded in 2008:  

“General Motors was on its knees in 2008. Amid a global financial crisis, the company was so financially challenged that it had no choice but to accept a federal government bailout. In 2009, the United Auto Workers joined the feds in saving GM, making concessions on wages and benefits to rescue the beleaguered company.”

The partnership paid off for GM. The company has earned $35 billion in profits in the last three years, partly as a result of the concessions the workers made over a decade ago.

But, does GM owe the UAW anything in return? The protracted strike shows that GM feels it doesn’t owe them much. Darrell Kennedy, a UAW striking worker said in a video:

“We gave up a cost-of-living increase, a dollar-an-hour wage increase we were due, tuition assistance and more…”

The union wants to include non-union workers who are part of GM’s three-tiered wage system. Those hired before 2007 (the union members) are Tier One workers who earn roughly $31 per hour, plus guaranteed pensions. Those hired after 2007 are Tier Two workers, earning about $17 an hour and have the opportunity for 401 (k) participation. The third tier are temporary workers who earn less than Tier Two workers and have no benefits.

The union wants better pay for Tier Two workers, and a path to job security for Tier Three employees. But since GM plans to move toward electric vehicles which use less labor that gas-powered cars, they are uninterested in commitments that reduce their flexibility in the future.

In business, Wrongo learned the hard way that making concessions, and expecting it to create good will that helps a future negotiating position, is usually a bad idea.

But, in this case, it’s difficult to work up enthusiasm for either side.

For example, GM spent $10.6 billion since 2015 buying back its own shares, some of which went to the UAW, who originally owned about 17.5% of GM after the bailout. The UAW has now sold over half its GM stock. Since the 1960s, GM has consistently demonstrated poor management. Their share of the automobile market has decreased from about 50% to about 17%. If it wasn’t for the government bailout, GM wouldn’t be here.

The UAW is rightly trying to grow its membership by advocating for GM’s Tier Two and Three employees. OTOH, in 2009, the union didn’t agree to cooperate with GM out of any sense of benevolence. They were saving their jobs. Finally, since the bailout, GM’s UAW workers have a profit-sharing deal. In 2018, the 46,500 UAW hourly employees earned up to $10,750 each.

Wrongo is very pro-labor, and often pro-union. In this case, it’s difficult to get behind the UAW’s strike.

Time to move past which State Dept. official in the Ukraine texted what about the Bidens, or how much more blatant Trump’s overtures to foreign governments will get. Let’s enjoy a Saturday Soother!

Start by thinking about the leaves piling up outside. Friday night brought frost to Mansion of Wrong, so our fall clean-up is in full swing. If it’s warmer where you live, enjoy the last of the warm weather.

No coffee today, get outside and do something physical. But before you go out, let’s remember the great Jessye Norman who died last Monday. She was a gifted singer with one of the greatest and most beautiful voices ever. She had all the qualities to make a performance both convincing, and memorable. Here she is singing “Ave Maria” by Schubert:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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We Saved GM For This?

The Daily Escape:

Redfish Lake, ID – 2018 photo by potatopatriot

From the Guardian:

General Motors announced yesterday that it will halt production at five North American facilities and cut 14,700 jobs as it deals with slowing sedan sales and the impact of Donald Trump’s tariffs.

The cuts will also hit 15% of GM’s 54,000 white-collar workforce, about 8,100 people. And some 18,000 GM workers have already been asked to accept voluntary buy-outs. By next year, it will no longer make the Buick LaCrosse, the Chevrolet Impala, or the Cadillac CT6 sedan. It’s also killing the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid. GM’s CEO Mary Barra:

We recognize the need to stay in front of changing market conditions and customer preferences…

Changing market conditions” means that GM’s sales are down despite offering enormous cash incentives to potential buyers. GM’s new-vehicle deliveries in the US plunged 11% in the third quarter, and are down 1.2% for the year. In Canada, GM’s sales have dropped 1.6% so far this year.

GM’s goal in restructuring is to save $6 billion in cash flow a year by year-end 2020. But saving all this money will cost a lot: GM estimates it at $3.0 billion to $3.8 billion, including asset write-downs, pension charges, and up to $2.0 billion in employee-related and other cash-based expenses.

GM will have to borrow this money. They said they expect to fund the restructuring costs through a new credit facility. The money has to be borrowed because GM blew through $13.9 billion in cash on share buybacks over the past four years:

Source: Wolfstreet.com

Despite spending $14 billion on share buybacks, the price of GM’s shares fell 10% over the same period.

You’d think that GM, a company that went bankrupt not too long ago, would be conservative in how it uses its cash. Nope, they wasted their cash on stock buybacks, and now they have to take out loans in order to reposition the company in its market.

Failing to anticipate where their market is going isn’t a new GM story. It had a 46% share of the car market in 1961, and now has a 17.6% share. They emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, only to be laying off workers and shutting plants in 2018.

Some history: Through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the US Treasury invested $49.5 billion in GM in 2008 and recovered $39 billion when it sold its shares on December 9, 2013. We lost $10.3 billion. The Treasury invested another $17.2 billion into GM’s former financing arm, GMAC (now Ally). The shares in Ally were sold on December 18, 2014 for $19.6 billion netting $2.4 billion.

Net, GM has cost taxpayers $7.9 billion, while the top decision-makers spent $14 billion largely to enrich themselves.

How were they enriched? Share buybacks boost stock prices. Usually the salary and bonus plans for top executives in public companies are keyed to share price, so the incentive to prop up the share price includes a personal reward. The Chairman and Board set the compensation plans for the CEO and C-suite. The composition of Boards is strongly influenced by the major shareholders, including the large stock funds, who want share price gains, along with a few buddies of the CEO.

We’ve just witnessed a decade of stock buybacks by large firms. They are doing that as opposed to investing in R&D, plant efficiency or market expansion. But companies can only go so far with financial engineering before they actually have to improve their businesses, and now GM has been burned by share buybacks.

This is more corporate greed that leads to the little guy facing real suffering when jobs are lost.

GM is a shot across the bow. The auto industry will follow with additional capacity reduction. Volkswagen has already warned that the shift to Electric Vehicles (EV’s) will drastically cut employment at its plants that manufacture internal combustion (IC) components. EV vehicle production is far less costly than IC vehicle production, so this will be a real and ongoing issue.

OTOH, car manufacturers all have an EV option, but people are still buying Toyota’s, Honda’s and Mazda’s, even though only a few are EV’s.

This new GM “plan” seems more like a smoke screen for being caught AGAIN behind a market that is moving away from them.

America: A sucker for saving GM in 2008.

And possibly, a sucker-in-waiting when the latest, greatest plan to make GM great again only works out for GM’s executives.

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