Daniel Howes

Howes: Investors flee auto stocks, rejecting 'New Detroit' pitch

Shares in General Motors are trading pennies lower than the initial offering price of $33 in November 2010, meaning ...more
Shares in General Motors are trading pennies lower than the initial offering price of $33 in November 2010, meaning that $1,000 invested then would be worth less than that today -- eight years later.
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For the second straight day, Ford Motor Co. shares closed below $9, thanks to uncertainty about its restructuring and investor fears that rising interest rates are further slowing the lengthening auto cycle.

The Blue Oval is not alone. Even as Ford shares are off nearly 22 percent since mid-April, shares in electric-car maker Tesla Inc. are down 32.3 percent since their "go-private" spike in August. And stock in high-flying Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is down more than 33 percent since mid-April.

Crosstown rival General Motors Co. shares continue to tread water, trading just pennies below the $33 per share investors paid in the post-bankrupt automaker's November 2010 initial public offering. Put simply: $1,000 invested in GM shares around the time of its IPO would be worth less than $1,000 today — almost eight years later.

And since June, GM shares have slipped 27.3 percent to $32.62 Wednesday from $44.85 on June 12. That's a loss of roughly $17 billion in market value for the automaker whose professed goal not too long ago was to be the "most valued" automaker in the world. It's not likely to claim that title anytime soon.

Building shareholder value ain't so easy for an Old Detroit automaker nine years removed from bankruptcy. For all GM has done to optimize its core car and truck business, to exit costly foreign markets, to sell its European operations and to bet big on next-generation technology, its languishing share price is a harsh reminder that investors aren’t buying the whole story.

The going is about to get tougher. A more than 800-point selloff in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Wednesday signals deepening investor concern that steadily rising interest rates — the grease that lubricated record auto sales and profits in the wake of historic bankruptcies — and a deepening trade dispute with China will throw the industry’s performance into a lower gear.

“We all know before the whole economy goes south, autos do,” said Jon Gabrielsen, CEO of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico-based J.T. Gabrielsen Consulting LLC. “That’s why I think they’re dropping off on all the autos.”

Ever since GM and FCA emerged from bankruptcy, and Ford managed to escape it with what then-CEO Alan Mulally liked to call the largest home-improvement loan in American history, Detroit's automakers have been on a financial tear.

Money was cheap, for business and for consumers. The average age of the American auto fleet exceeded 11 years, far beyond the expected life of most cars, trucks and SUVs. Low inflation begat small price increases for showroom metal. U.S. buyers deepened their love affair with profit-rich pickups and SUVs, a shift that fattened bottom lines from Dearborn to Auburn Hills. 

And all of it combined to keep juicing sales to record levels. The party may not yet be coming to an end, but it sure feels like it's long past beginning to wind down. And when it does, this town's automakers and their suppliers will be facing a new kind of reckoning: did Old Detroit really learn from the truly existential threats of 2008 and 2009?

Not if payrolls fattened again, driving break-even points higher instead of mostly holding the post-crisis line. Not if Ford and GM's Cadillac were slower than, say, FCA to recognize the U.S. market's shift away from cars in favor of SUVs. Not if today's brass is drinking the Auto 2.0 Kool-Aid drowning true-believing investors, convinced an electrified automotive world is just around the corner.

It's not, for most people, anyway. Mobility, autonomy and electrification are markers of at least part of the industry's future, but investors' rotation away from traditional automakers suggests they know that good ol' cyclical fundamentals still trump "belief."

What a surprise. Detroit's fall from Wall Street favor is a rational market response to a long record of capital incineration followed by bailout and more desperate calls for capital that is less than 10 years old. Not since the Dow Jones average bottomed in March 2009 and began its long march upward have this town's automaker's faced such headwinds.

The annual selling rate is expected to slow further because of rising interest rates, higher prices on new vehicles and plateauing demand. President Donald Trump's trade battle with China is intensifying. And the Federal Reserve's pace of rate hikes is causing investors to assess the collateral damage.

That includes auto stocks. Detroit's automakers say they've changed — now's their chance to prove it.

 daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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