GM's SUV Revamp Padding Record Profit Through U.S. Slowdown

Updated on
  • Fourth-quarter earnings of $1.65 a share exceeds estimates
  • New Equinox, Traverse boost results as Ford struggles
GM CFO Chuck Stevens discusses fourth-quarter earnings.

Booming sales of new sport utility vehicles helped General Motors Co. set a profit record last year and is giving the automaker impetus to forecast steady earnings in 2018.

Even as sales at home slowed, GM posted adjusted profit of $1.65 a share for the fourth quarter, beating analysts’ average estimate for $1.38 a share. The company made up for shipping fewer vehicles to dealers by delivering pricier models and cutting costs.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with our results and disciplined execution,” Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens told reporters Tuesday at the company’s headquarters in Detroit. “North American earnings and pricing has been a benefit. What has really driven results in North America has been our focus on cost. It’s a combination.”

2018 Chevrolet Traverse

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

GM’s earnings strength has been fueled by several new crossovers that were redesigned as American consumers pour into more spacious models. Both the compact Chevrolet Equinox and larger Traverse hadn’t been completely overhauled since around the time GM emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, giving the company an opportunity to make up for lost time in a big way.

GM shares rose as much as 5.5 percent and were up 5 percent to $41.50 as of 9:55 a.m. in New York. The stock jumped 18 percent in 2017.

GM's SUVs Ascend

Chevy Equinox passses Ford's Escape; Chevy Traverse and Buick Enclave sales surge

Source: Autodata Corp.

Note: Chevrolet and Buick are GM-owned brands

Two big charges last year led GM to report net losses of $5.15 billion for the quarter and $3.86 billion for 2017.

The U.S. tax bill made the company’s deferred tax assets less valuable, resulting in a $7.3 billion non-cash charge in the last three months of the year. The automaker also took a $6.2 billion charge in the third quarter related to the sale of its European units Opel and Vauxhall to the French carmaker PSA Group.

Equinox, Traverse

Sales of the Equinox rose 20 percent in the U.S. last year and the more expensive Traverse grew 5.8 percent. The new Equinox sold for an average price of almost $25,700 last month, up more than $3,000 from the average last year for 2017 models. The Traverse sells for an average of about $36,800, up about $7,000, according to data from GM.

GM also started selling redesigned versions of the Buick Enclave and GMC Terrain last year. Its Cadillac XT5 crossover made major gains, with U.S. deliveries surging 73 percent in 2017. Demand for the luxury brand is rapidly growing among Chinese consumers, with the division expecting global profit to double by 2021.

Princely Pricing

U.S. consumers paid up for several of GM's redesigned SUVs late last year

Source: Cox Automotive

The SUV strength blunted the impact on GM from the seven-year streak of U.S. auto industry sales growth coming to an end last year. Other automakers haven’t weathered the storm as well, with Ford Motor Co.’s fourth-quarter earnings prompting the stock’s biggest selloff in almost 18 months.

Ford’s plan to finally enter the fast-growing small SUV segment in the U.S. -- an area where GM’s Buick Encore has been competing since 2013 -- could help it play catch up this year.

Lending Profit

GM Financial, the automaker’s in-house lender, has been expanding and should keep growing this year, Stevens said. Profit increased by about $400 million to $1.2 billion last year. The unit should eventually finance 55 percent to 60 percent of GM’s retail sales in the U.S., up from about 40 percent in 2017, according to the CFO.

GM’s earnings for the year will prompt the company to pay its 50,000 union workers a bonus of $11,750, spokesman Tom Henderson said.

Full-year earnings in 2018 will be in line with $6.62 a share for 2017, according to the company. Executives are forecasting steady profit even as the carmaker plans to idle truck plants so they can change over to building revamped Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups.

(Updates with GM Financial unit’s results in 12th paragraph.)
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