DETROIT -- General Motors executives eager to shed the stigma of government ownership got two doses of welcome news ahead of last week's annual shareholders' meeting.
First, Standard & Poor's said that GM would rejoin its S&P 500 stock market index for the first time since before GM's 2009 government-funded bankruptcy. The move gave GM's shares a lift last week as money managers and mutual funds added GM shares to their portfolios.
That prompted the U.S. Treasury Department to sell 30 million shares in a public offering, and the UAW's GM retiree health care trust to unload 20 million shares. The divestitures left the government with less than 15 percent ownership of GM.
During an otherwise unremarkable shareholders' meeting, CEO Dan Akerson used those recent developments to build the case that GM has put the bailout behind it.
"With the success of the company, the viability and quite frankly the vitality of the company, much of that moniker has been shaken," Akerson told shareholders.
He cited the 42 percent rise in GM's stock last year; its leading position in China; its $37.2 billion in liquidity at the end of 2012; and a string of well-received new or redesigned vehicles, including the Cadillac ATS compact, the Opel Mokka small crossover in Europe and the Chevy Onix subcompact, which accounts for about one-quarter of GM's Brazil sales.
Barclays Capital analyst Brian Johnson said that investors "will have greater comfort that the Treasury exit is being accelerated."
The S&P inclusion also should help, Akerson said, because it is "a recognition by the market that we've come a long way since the bankruptcy. This place was not the most pleasant place four years ago. It wasn't that pleasant three or two years ago."
One shareholder, who identified herself as a financial planner from suburban Detroit, stepped to the microphone and told Akerson that her clients are reluctant to buy GM cars and trucks or to invest in its shares.
With that, Akerson launched into perhaps his most forceful public defense yet of the government's $49.6 billion GM bailout. So far, including last week's stock sale, the Treasury has recovered $32.53 billion from its stock sales and GM's 2010 repayment of a $6.7 billion loan.
"It's pretty hard to argue it wasn't successful," Akerson said. "Twenty-five billion dollars in profits later, growing employment, a strong manufacturing base and the first time in more than a generation that all [Detroit 3] manufacturers were profitable" are all evidence of the bailout's success.