A lawsuit filed by a Florida investor against General Motors over the age-old practice of “channel stuffing”, or sending inventory to dealers and recording it as a “sale”, so that revenue numbers can be pumped up while the vehicles languish on dealer lots. The practice of channel stuffing is universal in the auto industry, but in this case, the consequences are much broader.
The specifics of the lawsuit, which hinge on specific phrases in the IPO prospectus, can be found here. The class action suit is unlikely to do any serious damage to GM, and will likely be the site of a long, protracted legal battle. The implications of channel stuffing are what really matter, and may provide a glimpse into both General Motors, and its government stewardship.
While General Motors is touting their 32 percent year-over-year increase in sales, a closer look at the numbers reveals a couple of things. According to Bloomberg, inventory for full-size trucks was at a 135 day supply, as GM ostensibly cranked out profitable pickups and sent them off to dealers across the land, allowing them to book sales of their most lucrative vehicles just in time for the half-way mark – and coincidentally (or not), government purchases of GM vehicles rose 79 percent in June. Retail sales were up a mere 8 percent, while fleet sales rose by 36 percent.
There is a political argument to be made for all of this, with GM’s financial health being integral to President Obama’s re-election, and a validation of the auto bailout and his economic policies. The Treasury still owns a 32 percent stake in GM, and selling their shares now would mean a major loss of taxpayer money. If GM’s fortunes were to reverse, than a quick exit, perhaps at a profit, might be possible.
The inflated inventories and “channel stuffing” aren’t just a manipulative way to make GM’s numbers look better than they are – they also expose GM to a potentially dangerous financial situation similar to 2008. General Motors, like any other car company, must sell the cars it builds. Its inventories are much higher than other manufacturers. Prior to the bailout, GM was caught out with large inventories of full-size trucks and SUVs at a time when a poor economy and rising gas prices made them unattractive to consumers. This same scenario occurring again isn’t inconceivable.