Government Motors: As GM shares near record low, taxpayer loss on bailout rises to $35 billion

By Ed Carson
To quote Lando Calrissian, this deal’s getting worse all the time.

General Motors (GM) shares fell to a fresh 2012 closing low of 19.57 on Monday July 2. The stock hit 19 in mid-December, the lowest since the auto giant came public at $33 in November 2010 following its June 2009 bankruptcy.

Normally you might say, tough luck investors. But this is Government Motors. The Treasury still owns 26.5 percent of GM, or 500 million shares. Taxpayers are still out $26.4 billion in direct aid. Shares would have to hit $53 for the government to break even.

Those shares were worth about $9.8 billion as of Monday. That would leave taxpayers with a loss of $16.6 billion.

But that’s not the full tally. Obama let GM keep $45 billion in past losses to offset future profits. Those are usually wiped out or slashed, along with debts, in bankruptcy. But the administration essentially gifted $45 billion in write-offs (book value $18 billion) to GM. So when GM earned a $7.6 billion profit in 2011 (more on that below), it paid no taxes.

Include that $18 billion gift, and taxpayers’ true loss climbs to nearly $35 billion.

Of course, there’s no chance that the Obama administration will sell off its GM stake before Election Day. That would force Obama to recognize actual losses, which would remind voters that the bailout was a massive transfer from taxpayers to unions.

Union workers did make sacrifices in bankruptcy, but not nearly enough. GM only narrowed the labor cost gap vs. what Japanese automakers pay their workers. Given that Toyota(TM) still enjoys a price premium over similar GM vehicles, the U.S. auto giant needs a labor cost advantage, not near-parity. And Toyota has relatively high costs. Volkswagen(VLKAY) pays workers at its new Tennessee plant only about half what GM does.

The Volt hybrid was supposed to provide a green veneer to GM’s entire lineup, like the Prius has done for Toyota. Instead, the Volt has been a PR disaster following fires and anemic sales that led to a temporary production halt earlier this year.

GM’s market share and profits got an artificial boost in 2011 as Japan’s earthquake and Thailand’s massive floods wrecked havoc with supply chains for Toyota and other Japanese automakers. But with Toyota back on track and VW and Hyundai aggressively expanding in America, GM is rapidly losing share in 2012.

Overall U.S. auto sales were strong to start the year, but that momentum has faded along with slowing economic growth and hiring. Falling gas prices also may reduce the incentive to replace aging cars and trucks with higher-mileage vehicles. Automakers release U.S. June vehicle sales on Tuesday.