Forget about whether General Motors (NYSE: GM ) will be able to retain its title against Toyota (NYSE: TM ) as the world's biggest car seller for the year. Let's see if it can even survive the year as an automaker of any size. Its shares have fallen to their lowest level in 58 years, and Ford (NYSE: F ) is doing no better. In fact, it costs more to buy a gallon of gas these days than it does to buy a share of Ford stock.
Both car makers plummeted yesterday as worldwide economic concerns increased fears that no one, anywhere, was going to be buying cars anytime soon. Standard & Poor's said it might junk their credit ratings further and that both might face liquidity issues in 2009.
The hoopty of automakers
GM took a big gamble last month when it announced its intention to draw down the remaining $3.5 billion on its $4.5 billion line of credit to boost its liquidity. The game of chicken might have been a ruse to get Congress to pass a bailout bill for Detroit -- Congress blinked and passed it -- but now GM has few places to turn to when the well runs dry.
And running dry it is. GM says a credit-market thaw is essential to its survival, but even if that does eventually flow down to consumers, it doesn't mean they're going to be buying more cars, domestic or foreign. Dwindling investment accounts, lower home-price values, increased costs, and tougher job markets all mean that if you don't immediately need to replace your ride, it's a purchase you can put off.
Not that the car makers have helped themselves much by limiting consumer options. Chrysler has all but abandoned leasing altogether, GM isn't subsidizing Canadian leases anymore, and Ford has said that it is raising prices on some of its models, like its once-popular F-150 pickup trucks, to make them "lease-proof."
A global car wreck
J.D. Power & Associates predicts that the global auto market might just suffer an "outright collapse" next year, with Europe, India, and China expected to slow "dramatically." GM and Ford were the only two foreign car makers to report a drop in sales in Russia in September, at a time when the overall foreign car market saw a 22% increase in Russia.
Yet U.S. car makers aren't the only ones in trouble. Toyota is struggling to meet its sales goals because of the U.S. and European markets and suggests operating profit might fall 40% this year. Its domestic sales dropped 32% last month, while Honda (NYSE: HMC ) was down 24% and Nissan (Nasdaq: NSANY ) was off 37%. But that pales in comparison to GM's woes.
A major blowout
While the iconic auto company's September sales were down "only" 16%, it has lost a staggering $58 billion during the 12 months ending in June (when it last reported earnings). That's 21 times more than its current market cap, not to mention the boatload of debt that GM is carrying. As of the second quarter, General Motors was burning about $1 billion a month from its cash reserves, but that may have accelerated recently as the markets went haywire. At this point, even a merger with Ford -- an idea dismissed as unnecessary and unwanted, according to BusinessWeek-- wouldn't help. Citigroup estimates that Ford has enough liquidity to make it through to 2010, though Fitch Ratings is expecting a serious cash crunch come the middle of next year.
The dawn of U.S. Car, Inc.
Today brings news that Ford’s chief financial officer, Don Leclair, will retire on Nov. 1 and be replaced by Lewis Booth, Ford’s current European chief. Meanwhile, General Motors is denying any rumor that bankruptcy may be an option. Regardless, it’s clear that both GM and Ford have their work cut out for them, and the global economy isn’t currently stacked in their favor. At the rate they're going, we'll someday be able to use GM stock certificates as floor mats in the foreign cars we drive, while paying to fill up the tank with Ford stock.