GM Stake Sale Not Easy for Government to Time: Corporate Canada

GM Stake Sale Not Easy for Government to Time: Corporate Canada
“Over time we intend to divest,” Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters yesterday in Whitby, Ontario. Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Canada may have trouble unloading its $3.5 billion stake in General Motors Co., as there won’t be many “buying triggers” to spur a sale, according to documents from the agency that manages the shares.

Advisers told the board of directors of Canada GEN Investment Corp., which oversees Canada’s and Ontario’s 9 percent GM stake, on May 16 that investor demand may be weak given the company’s forecast for “flat performance,” board minutes obtained last week by Bloomberg News through Canada’s freedom-of-information law show. Directors authorized a sales strategy on Dec. 21 that allows the agency to hire dealers to sell the stock, according to the records.

Because the government may be seen as an insider, selling the shares in the world’s largest automaker could “have negative market consequences, particularly given the large size of holdings vis-a-vis the size of the public float,” directors were told by Canada GEN Investment executive Michael Carter.

The caution underscores the challenges the U.S. and Canadian governments face in unwinding their ownership more than three years after the two countries rescued the company from insolvency. Canada is the third-largest shareholder in GM, behind the U.S. Treasury, which holds 32 percent, and the GM-UAW Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association with 10 percent. Canada and Ontario gave $9.5 billion in financial assistance to GM in 2009, while the U.S. provided $50 billion.

The government stakes are an “overhang” on the stock because potential buyers may be worried about the impact of so many shares hitting the market, said Matthew Stover, an analyst with Guggenheim Securities LLC.

“It’s kind of like the black eye that sort of hangs on you after a fight,” Stover said in an Oct. 2 telephone interview from Boston. “It’s not what you want to walk around the neighborhood with.”

Retain Talent

“Over time we intend to divest,” Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters yesterday in Whitby, Ontario. “We don’t want to be in the car business and I don’t think Canadian taxpayers want to be in the car business so we’ll get out of it over time.”

The government talks to the U.S. Treasury about their GM ownership “from time to time,” he said.

GM Canada, which makes the Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac XTS in Oshawa, Ontario, is “focused on continuing to deliver business results, growing profitably, and creating value for all of our shareholders,” spokeswoman Adria MacKenzie said in an e-mail. “Whether and when the U.S. and Canadian governments choose to divest their shares in GM is up to them.”

‘Liquidity Event’

GM’s stock has declined 25 percent since it sold $15.8 billion in common shares at $33 each on Nov. 17, 2010 in an initial public offering that reduced the U.S. government to a minority shareholder. It was up 0.9 percent at $24.87 at 1:50 p.m. in New York today.

While the sale of the U.S. and Canadian government stakes will represent a “massive liquidity event,” it will probably not hurt GM’s share price too much, because investors are already anticipating a sale, said James Albertine, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co Inc.

“I’m actually fairly confident that the company can withstand it,” he said in a phone interview.

The Detroit-based automaker said Aug. 3 its second-quarter profit fell 38 percent. Rising losses in Europe and stagnating sales in China are threatening to undercut the recovery even as the U.S. market is on pace for its best year since 2007.

Canada GEN Investment holds just over 140 million common shares in GM, representing about 9 percent of the outstanding stock. The shares closed yesterday at $24.65 in New York, up 26 cents, valuing the Canadian stake at about $3.5 billion.

Sales Strategy

Canada GEN Investment sold just over 30 million shares in the 2010 IPO, netting about $1 billion.

Most details on the sales strategy adopted by the board in December have been censored under provisions of Canada’s Access to Information Act protecting the country’s economic interests and confidential third-party information.

The strategy authorized Canada GEN Investment to sell Canada’s entire stake in any manner, including a public offering, private sale or company buy-back.

The most likely purchaser of government-owned stock is probably GM itself, said Stover. “They’ve got a ton of cash on their balance sheet, so I would personally imagine the company to be a big buyer of the stock.”

The U.S. government will probably sell its stake in GM before the end of next year, as long as the share price remains above $20, he said.

Directors on May 16 agreed with management to extend a contract with investment bank Rothschild Canada Ltd. to advise on the GM holdings. Rothschild is being paid a monthly fee of $50,000, with a fee of $100,000 for months of “heavy workload.”

David Drinkwater, a Rothschild executive based in Toronto, didn’t reply to a phone call seeking comment.

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