GM, Obama can move ahead with the end of 'Government Motors'
President Obama driving a Chevy Volt. The stock sale announced last week boosted GM's stock price as the government's stake in the automaker fell from 32 percent down to 19 percent.
WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Treasury's plan to sell its remaining stake in General Motors Co. is a leap forward for the Obama administration's effort to end a $418 billion bailout program that in four years was transformed from a political albatross to a winning campaign issue.
The decision to exit GM within the next 15 months, and the Treasury's sale last week of its remaining shares of insurer American International Group Inc., will erase two corporate symbols of the 2008 financial crisis from the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program. Taxpayers spent $182.3 billion on AIG and $49.5 billion to rescue GM.
"This shows that the Obama administration, as it enters its second term, wants to close the book on TARP as quickly as practicable," said Stephen Myrow, who worked on the program in 2008 as a Treasury official in the administration of George W. Bush and is now managing director at ACG Analytics Inc., an investment research and consulting firm in Washington.
GM on Friday completed the purchase of 200 million, or 13 percent, of its shares for $5.5 billion. That would leave the Treasury with about 300 million shares, or 19 percent on a fully diluted basis, after the transaction.
For GM, it allowed the automaker to move forward from the perception of government control of its business decisions.
"This announcement is an important step in bringing closure to the successful auto industry rescue," CEO Dan Akerson said in a statement. "It removes the perception of government ownership of GM among customers and it demonstrates confidence in GM's progress and our future."
GM first approached Treasury officials after the U.S. presidential election in November, but was rebuffed when it offered only to pay market value for the government's stock, a senior Treasury official told Reuters.
Treasury then rejected a second offer of a small premium before the sides finalized the deal on Tuesday afternoon, said the Treasury official, who asked not to be identified discussing the negotiations. "We've always looked at this as balancing speed of exit with maximizing return, and GM basically made us what we felt was a very attractive offer," the Treasury official said.
Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said the share purchase should help GM improve its image among car buyers and boost its share price.
"GM has a clear path to shake the 'Government Motors' moniker once and for all," Jonas wrote in a research note. "While impossible to quantify, we believe there is a genuine improvement in the commercial value for GM's products that can crystallize over time following an ownership change."
Congress approved $700 billion for the financial rescue in October 2008, and the bill was signed into law by Bush in the midst of a presidential election campaign that Obama won. The economy was shrinking at an 8.9 percent annual rate in that quarter, and 1.95 million jobs were lost.
Growth resumed in the third quarter of 2009, and unemployment last month fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest rate since 2008. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index has more than doubled since reaching a 12-year low on March 9, 2009.
"My concern is that Treasury might put GM on autopilot and forget about how taxpayers ended up owning the company in the first place," Christy Romero, the special inspector general overseeing TARP, said in an interview last week. "Treasury just can't focus on its exit from these investments. It has to focus on ensuring that TARP was worth it and there's continued financial stability for our economy."
GM surged 6.6 percent to $27.18 on Wednesday after the deal was announced as the automaker agreed to pay $27.50 a share -- a 7.9 percent premium over the previous day's closing price. GM shares closed the week before the Christmas holiday at $27.32. The shares gained 26 percent this year through Dec. 18, when they remained 23 percent below the company's initial public offering price of $33 a share.
The deal puts break-even further away for Treasury, which has garnered about $23 billion through GM's 2010 IPO, debt repayment, repurchasing of preferred stock, and interest and dividends. That means the U.S. would need almost $70 for each of the remaining 300 million shares to recoup its investment, up from about $53 before yesterday.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated in October that TARP, which stabilized banks including Citigroup Inc. and Morgan Stanley, would ultimately cost taxpayers $24 billion, down from a projection of $109 billion in March 2010.
The rescues of GM, Chrysler Group LLC and auto lender Ally Financial Inc. cost taxpayers $79.7 billion, and $40.9 billion has been returned. Taxpayers have invested $49.5 billion in GM and received $23 billion back, not including the $5.5 billion GM plans to buy from the Treasury.
Several pieces of the bailout remain. The Treasury said the timing of its exit from GM depends on market conditions, and it retains a 74 percent stake in Ally. The government is also running housing programs that have helped fewer homeowners than it initially hoped and is trying to sell shares of 218 banks that still owe taxpayer money.
"With the year-end upon us, everyone wants to clean up their balance sheets," said Kip Weissman, a partner representing banks for Luse Gorman Pomerenk & Schick PC in Washington. The GM sale allows the Treasury to "show a higher profit and lower outstanding balance on TARP, and investors can take some GM profits."
Outside of TARP, taxpayers have invested $187.5 billion in mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and received dividends of $50.4 billion. The Obama administration wants to overhaul the housing-finance system and wind down Fannie and Freddie, which pool home loans for sale to investors and guarantee interest and principal payments. The firms have operated under U.S. conservatorship since 2008.
The auto bailouts by the U.S. and Canadian governments propped up a light-vehicle industry that has since reported three straight years of at least 10 percent growth. Cars and light trucks sold at a 15.6 million annual rate in November, the most since January 2008, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
The auto bailouts were "not a bust but not a success," said Phillip Swagel, who was an assistant Treasury secretary under Bush and is now a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.
"The economy would have been worse without the auto rescue, but the administration's method was more costly than it needed to be."
Reuters and Mike Colias contributed to this report.Contact Automotive News