GM's finance chief can't celebrate profit party

Finance chief Chris Liddell walked a tricky line Monday morning for General Motors, even as he announced a first-quarter $1.2 billion operating profit and net earnings of $865 million. He can't celebrate.

On one hand, Liddell was “incredibly encouraged” by the General turning a real quarterly profit, the first in almost three years. “It's a critical part of preparing for public ownership,” he said.

On the other hand, Liddell is talking down expectations, both on the certainty of turning a full-year profit and the timing of an initial public offering. His boss Ed Whitacre had hinted at an IPO this year.

Liddell didn't address specific timing, saying only it will come “when the markets and the company are ready.” And, he added in his rich, New Zealand accent: “Out of our control are the market and the status of the global automotive industry.”

GM has come far since emerging from bankruptcy last July. Still, it's more a tender shoot growing from its own ashes than the mighty oak it once was.

There is a plausible path for a quick GM recovery: post a couple quarterly profits, gain investor confidence, go public in the fourth quarter and use the IPO funds to buy out the feds.

But that path depends on a string of things going right. What if the U.S. recovery stalls? What if Europe's debt crisis expands? What if, for these reasons or something else entirely, wary investors stay spooked and the stagnant IPO market fails to reemerge by fall?

Liddell's task is to pump up investor confidence. That must happen for the string of events to develop. But he must also temper that confidence so investors don't get impatient. A fine line indeed.

But that's Liddell's task.

The rest of the GM family -- employees, dealers, suppliers -- can simply enjoy the day. After last year's disaster, in a still-lousy market, GM turned a profit.

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