GM's Transparency Pledge On The Fritz Edition

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Former GM CEO Fritz Henderson may well have been a convenient punching boy in the aftermath of the Obama Administration’s firing of his predecessor, but at least the guy had a sense of obligation. Henderson was a consummate GM insider, but unlike Rick Wagoner, he realized that this status was as much a liability as an asset in the politically-fraught aftermath of the bailout. Nowhere is this more clear than in Fritz’s major contribution to GM’s public relations: in hopes of proving GM’s appreciation of its extraordinary rescue, Henderson committed GM to “open communication” and “transparency,” telling the US Senatewith the very first words of his testimony that

It’s our obligation to be open and transparent in all we do to reinvent GM, particularly with the American taxpayer as our largest investor.

Of course, The General didn’t always make good on that pledge, but at least Fritz made the effort to say he cared. Now, GM is taking the opposite approach, threatening to liberate the benighted public from the burden of its transparency. After all, the US taxpayer is no longer the majority shareholder in GM… even if, at 33%, we are still GM’s single-largest “investor.”

Automotive News [sub] reports

General Motors has settled on a strategy to quell industry chatter about a jump in its incentive spending: Disclose less.

GM sales chief Don Johnson said today that the automaker will be less forthcoming about its spiffs on a month-to-month basis. From now on, GM will talk about incentives and average transaction prices “directionally” but won’t discuss specifics.

This comes as reports that GM’s average incentive per vehicle grew 29 percent in January to $3,762, the highest among large automakers. Johnson acknowledged a “modest” increase but wouldn’t talk numbers.

“There’s been a lot of noise out there in the system about sources of data, competitors saying this or that,” Johnson told analysts and reporters on a conference call. “We’re just trying to take the noise out of the system.”

Or, it will increase the “noise” in the system, as industry-watchers speculate about GM’s actual incentive spend. Remember, nothing stops speculation like the truth… and only GM can provide the real truth about its incentives.

And this is not just a question of practical PR strategy or even an obligation to taxpayers… it’s about the competition. Just as GM announced that it would be less transparent going forward, Hyundai was stepping up and providing an unprecedented amount of information with its latest sales release, including a full sales-weighted CAFE number, and the brand’s fleet mix. If Hyundai continues to provide more information while GM restricts access to its data, who do you think is going to come out looking better? Remember, they do still call this the “information age.”

AN [sub] provides another way of looking at the situation:

Christopher Ceraso, a Credit Suisse analyst, might have summed it up best. He told GM officials that less transparency could be seen as a signal that GM is getting more aggressive on price and doesn’t want to set off alarm bells.

“Generally,” he said, “less disclosure is bad.”

UPDATE: The DetN’s David Shepardson points out that GM did give us some warning about this.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • FleetofWheel FleetofWheel on Feb 02, 2011

    Surely GM mgmt doesn't actually regard their stated MSRP as the true value of their cars anymore than Ronco thinks their TeeVee vegetable peeler has an actual value of $29.99 In private, they know what the avg transaction price is of all their cars. Strange how so many car enthusiasts earnestly talk in terms of incentives off of MSRP as if that MSRP is some kind of pure and realistic number. Yet we all laugh at such puffery from any other maker/seller of mass produced goods that are built mostly by robots on a JIT assembly line. All those other products sell at 'no haggle' prices at any given retailer and can easily be checked with a quick web search. Some consumers choose to pay more in exchange for time or location convenience but you can know the real lowest price with little effort.

  • Motorhead10 Motorhead10 on Feb 03, 2011

    GM not talking about incentives really doesn't matter in the giant scheme - other than from a credibility perspective maybe. The numbers (estimates) are out there anyway. This past fall, I was in a meeting with representatives from PR, IR and accounting of one of the US-based automakers (that shall remain nameless). Speaking to the senior sales analyst (the person on the monthly sales conference call), I asked how they aggregated their incentive data. The response was that they prefer to talk about incentives "directionally" as too much detail creates the expectation of disclosure every month and that can be bad in slow selling periods. BUT - when this person does disclose incentives publicly, they would be citing a third-party data source. So this automaker doesn't even generate its own incentive data. They buy (or are given) it - like everyone else. Basically, the automakers don't have any better data than what is published by various sources every month. I found that very surprising. I guess they figure why create the salary expense for a few extra analysts to crunch transaction data every month when there are multiple sources already doing it (and fairly accurately).

  • ToolGuy I AM PLACING [sic] NICELY. There is NO NEED TO BAN ME. Personally I do lots of things which DON'T MAKE SENSE, sometimes to myself, often to others. WHO ELON MUSK ENDORSES is really kind of NONE OF MY BUSINESS. It is a FREE COUNTRY, in some ways, still. I wish I knew how to FORMAT MY COMMENT better. I USED TO KNOW HOW, maybe I am losing it slowly (lot of that going around, JUST SAYING).
  • Aja8888 I can't read those whole thread without throwing up....
  • ToolGuy Maybe I will GIVE IT A LISTEN. Probably when I'm MOWING THE LAWN. Probably with a BATTERY OPERATED MOWER. (There are also batteries IN MY HEADPHONES. And IN MY PHONE.) Does anyone remember how to make a NEW PARAGRAPH?
  • ToolGuy I am NOT SURE WHAT TO SAY. In fact I'M NOT EVEN SURE WHAT I JUST READ. I paid a premium for my last cordless drill/driver because it has a hydraulic front end which PRODUCES LESS NOISE AND VIBRATION.
  • ToolGuy Tim, THANK YOU FOR THE ALL CAPS. I think it ADDS A LOT to the discussion. I might USE it MYSELF in the future. Have a GREAT WEEKEND.