With GM’s share price slipping below $30, the cries are going up again around the internet about the government’s stake in the bailed-out automaker. Thus far the Treasury has remained mum on its exit strategy, only indicating that it would emphasize speed rather than maximum return as it charted the course for its sell-off. But now, Reuters reports that “a big chunk” of the government’s 33% remaining stake in GM could be sold “in the summer or fall.” With the government’s shares “locked up” until May 22, that could mean the government is bailing as quickly as possible at a time when GM’s stock is hitting post-bankruptcy lows, and its CEO offers little in the way of explanations beyond blaming the Japanese tsunami and rising fuel prices. The Wall Street Journal figures taxpayers would lose $11b on its “investment” in GM equity if the government sold at today’s prices (the stock must hit $53 for break-even), but reports that political motivations outweigh fiscal considerations. The White House does not want “Government Motors” to be an issue in the next election.
A Treasury spokesperson insists that
Planning for the sale of our remaining GM stock is still at an early stage and the IPO lock-up does not expire until late May. At that point, we will consider all of our options, based on our twin goals of protecting taxpayers’ interests and exiting as soon as practicable.
But, once you get folks off the record, the real issue emerges:
Government officials are willing to take the loss because the Obama administration would like to sever its last ties to the auto maker, the people familiar with the matter said. A summer sale makes it more likely Treasury could sell all of its stake in GM by year’s end, avoiding a potentially controversial sale in the 2012 presidential election year.
So how does the White House expect to sell early and not lose its shirt? Well, for one thing, it’s premature to use today’s stock prices as a measure because the sale likely won’t happen all that soon. The WSJ reckons that
a sale in May is unlikely because Treasury would need time to put together a deal once the May share sales restriction lifts.
Another issue: on April 21, the former bondholders of Old GM will receive warrants and stock, and will likely sell them, placing further short-term downward pressure on GM’s share price. June? Not likely either, as Bloomberg [via Automotive News [sub]] cites sources who claim
The U.S. Treasury Department will wait for General Motors Co.’s first-quarter earnings before deciding whether to sell more of its investment in the nation’s largest automaker
The second quarter doesn’t end until June 30, and earnings won’t be publicly reported until August. So much for June. Starting in July GM becomes eligible to file an S3 with the SEC (allow Treasury to sell shares without having to address SEC comments), but it would be strange if the government sold shares of a publicly-owned company after viewing earnings that hadn’t been publicized. Unless you enjoy a soft spot for conspiracies, you can rule out July.
Starting in August, GM’s Q2 earnings will be out, it will have an S3 filed, and the government will have had time to structure a deal [according to Reuters]. If gas prices aren’t making headlines, the government will likely think very hard about selling at this point. The only issue: an August sale would have to take place in the first half of the month, as Wall Street takes the second half off. Trading should be closed through Labor Day, meaning Treasury could have to wait into September if it doesn’t pull the trigger in early August. Then, after the Treasury sells its “big chunk,” its remaining stake would be locked up again, meaning a final exit might not take place before December.
Is the remainder of this year a good timeline for Treasury to pursue as it seeks to exit its unwanted ownership stake in GM? On face value, it’s not ideal, with gas prices continuing to threaten, and worries about executive shuffling and incentive dependence taking the shine off GM’s stock. More than anything else, GM needs to signal a sense of consistency to investors in order to calm fears about the restructured company’s ability to rebuild its empire. More time would help calm those jitters (provided things go reasonably smoothly in the interim), meaning waiting could be in the taxpayers’ fiscal interest.
But since politics seems to be driving the sale, and the future can’t be counted on to give GM time to prove its stability in its “new normal,” the sale will happen sooner. And luckily, the Treasury does have one ace up its sleeve, as Reuters explains:
GM is expected to join the S&P 500 index . Such an inclusion would likely generate additional demand from portfolio managers who benchmark their holdings against the index. The U.S. Treasury might be able to sell additional shares based on this demand in what is known as an index inclusion trade.
Will increased demand from institutional investors as a result of an S&P500 listing be enough to buoy GM’s stock? Maybe not. But then, the White House has insisted for some time that recouping its investment was not the main point of the bailout, and that as an emergency economic measure, it was already “worth it.” At this point, there’s not much choice but hope they’re right, but the very question about how to time the government’s exit raises an interesting point: even after a government-backed bankruptcy and a cash injection of tens of billions of dollars, GM’s position remains uncertain and its future remains unclear. If The General collapses again, and investor pessimism indicates that it’s a possibility, will the “emergency economic measure” still have been “worth it?” Will another such measure be forthcoming? Regardless of how much the treasury loses when it exits GM, this question will dog the auto industry for some time to come.