GM CEO says dividend, share buyback possible, but only after it invests in products

DETROIT – General Motors CEO Dan Akerson says the company’s finances are sound enough to consider paying a dividend or even buying more of its stock from the U.S. government.

The CEO, in comments after GM’s annual meeting Thursday, also said the company first has to keep investing in new vehicles and equipment.

GM cut its dividend in July of 2008, amid financial troubles that eventually landed it in bankruptcy protection. The company needed a $49.5 billion government bailout in 2008 and 2009 to survive the financial crisis and the Great Recession.

In exchange for the bailout, the government got 60.8 per cent of GM’s stock. The Treasury Department has been shrinking its stake, and will cut its holdings in GM to under 14 per cent with a public offering of 30 million shares on Thursday. After the sale, the Treasury Department will own 189.2 million shares, GM said in a regulatory filing Thursday.

Akerson said that once the government’s stake drops below 10 per cent, restrictions on the number of shares it can sell each quarter are lifted. That, he said, may open the door for GM to buy more shares and potentially hasten the government’s exit.

The government has said it intends to sell its entire stake in GM by April of 2014. As of May 10, the government had recouped about $30.7 billion of the bailout money, leaving taxpayers were about $18.8 billion in the hole.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday set a price of $34.41 per share for the 30 million GM shares, which will bring the government another $1.03 billion. A United Autoworkers retiree health care trust fund was selling 20 million of its GM shares as well, bringing total sales Thursday to 50 million shares.

GM stock closed Thursday at $34.44 per share. The stock had closed at $35.49 on Tuesday, the highest closing price since December 2010. Shares of GM stock are up about 19 per cent since the beginning of the year.

On Thursday GM replaced H.J. Heinz Co. in the S&P 100 and 500 indices. The ketchup maker’s acquisition by 3G Capital and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is expected to be completed by then. Stocks often get at least a temporary boost after joining the S&P 500, because funds that follow the index have to add the shares to their portfolios.

GM’s shares sold for $33 when they began publicly trading again in November 2010. They have risen about 19 per cent so far this year.

Akerson said the company will consider restoring the dividend as another way of returning capital to shareholders, but he provided no time frame.

“I think first and foremost, we must continue to invest in this company so we don’t lose the competitive edge,” he said.

Crosstown rival Ford Motor Co., which avoided bankruptcy protection by borrowing billions, restored its dividend in March of 2012, about five years after halting it due to financial problems. Since then, the company has doubled the dividend to 10 cents per share.

GM has plenty of cash available should it choose to buy back stock or pay a dividend. The company finished the first quarter with $24.3 billion in cash and securities. It also has $11 billion available on a credit line.

GM also announced that it would offer free oil changes, tire rotations and inspections for two years on most of its 2014 models in an effort to boost customer loyalty.

The offer is good for two years or 24,000 miles, whichever comes first. Oil changes will be done when the vehicle’s oil monitoring system says they are needed.

Previously, oil changes were only covered for Cadillacs sold since the 2011 model year.

“We know that our customers who service their vehicles at our dealerships are much more likely to purchase another GM product down the road,” Akerson said.

The oil change program will help GM sway buyers who are choosing between it and competitors on price, if the competitors don’t have similar programs, said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “While this can help to bring customers into the showroom, it still comes down to product,” he said.

Also Thursday, GM shareholders voted overwhelmingly for all 14 current directors and ratified the company’s executive compensation plan in an advisory vote.

A proposal that would have separated the chairman and CEO duties failed but got 35 per cent of the vote. It would have stopped the chairman from being an officer of the company. Currently Akerson is both CEO and chairman.

Shareholders also rejected a request that the board require senior executives to keep at least 25 per cent of their company stock until they are at least 60 years old.


AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger in Washington contributed to this report.