General Motors is bankrupt, but judging from Chrysler's experience, it won't be for long. While GM management initially expected to spend two to three months in Chapter 11, smaller rival Chrysler managed it in just six weeks, start to finish. With the clock now a-tickin', I suspect a lot of investors are counting the hours until they can finally buy shares in GM again.
My advice: Don't do it. This company may not be dead, but it's terminally stupid.
GM proved the point yesterday, when it announced it is ending production of the Pontiac Vibe at its famed New United Motor Manufacturing Inc (NUMMI) factory in California, a decades-old joint venture with Toyota (NYSE: TM ) that has already paid off in spades.
Why is this a bad idea? Three reasons:
Great car, great performer
According to data from CarMax (NYSE: KMX ) , the Vibe consistently made the top 10 list for most fuel-efficient cars sold in the U.S. from 2003 to 2006 (pushed off only in 2007, when Nissan (Nasdaq: NSANY ) and Honda (NYSE: HMC ) began hawking their Versa and Fit mini-cars, respectively).
Our modern era of high gasoline prices has made fuel economy a key selling point for small family haulers like the Vibe. In evidence of which, the Vibe's sales have outperformed both parent company Pontiac and Toyota this year. Pontiac sales through the end of May plummeted 48%; Toyota, 39%; but the Vibe, just 35% -- making it the relative best-in-show.
The anti-Pontiac Pontiac
Late last year, when I moved our household into Detroit's backyard (Indiana), one of the first things I noticed was the large number of Vibes I saw on the road. But just why is it that this car in particular is holding up so much better than the rest of Pontiac?
Call me a penny-pincher if you will, but I bought the Vibe myself -- and I can tell you from personal experience: It's because the Vibe is not a Pontiac. Manufactured at NUMMI to the specifications of its Toyota Matrix twin, the Vibe is essentially a Japanese car in Detroit drag.
You see, while GM originally set up NUMMI in order to get a firsthand look at Toyota's manufacturing processes, in this case the advantage to GM has been more penumbral. No matter how many times J.D. Power & Associates assures us that Detroit quality is on par with Japan's -- and in many cases superior -- reputation remains a tricky thing.
Thus, in selling the Vibe, GM gets to piggyback on Toyota's reputation for quality even as it made great strides in improving its own actual quality of production.
Survey says ...
Speaking of quality, I have to say that GM's made a habit of killing golden geese such as the Vibe. Once upon a time, the company reinvented car sales with Saturn. The new division emphasized quality, service, a close relationship with its customers, and fixed, no-haggle prices (a la CarMax). The concept worked well initially, until GM got distracted by trying to save Oldsmobile and starved Saturn of capital, ultimately doing serious damage to the division's brand.
Or take the case of the S-10. In 2005, the Chevy S-10 small pickup won praise from J.D. Power as the most dependable small pickup sold in the U.S. (judged based on the number of problems reported on cars built three years previously). Second place in the survey went to ... the S-10's twin, the GMC Sonoma. Yet GM killed the S-10 at the top of its game. One year before the 2005 survey results came out, GM had shut down S-10 production, replacing it with the slightly larger Colorado.
And how has that worked out, you ask? The Colorado hasn't earned a top dependability rating from J.D. Power even once.
Not all bad news
Now, to give credit where it's due, I should point out that GM is making some right moves. For example, last week the company announced termination of the leases on its fleet of corporate jets.
That's bad news for General Electric (NYSE: GE ) , which leases the Gulfstreams built by General Dynamics (NYSE: GD ) to GM. Investors, however, may latch onto this as evidence that GM is finally getting lean and mean enough to survive in today's automotive market. (Ford (NYSE: F ) , by the way, has also announced it's giving up its jet fleet.)
Of babies and bathwater ...
While I applaud GM's newfound commitment to improving its own profits rather than subsidizing airplane dealers, it's going to take more than grand gestures to turn GM into a winning investment. What GM really needs is a dose of common sense.
Kill the Pontiac brand? If it's underperforming the rest of the company, sure. But don't throw out the Vibe with Pontiac's stanky bathwater. Rebrand it as a Chevy -- just as GM imports Daewoos into the U.S. as "Chevrolet Aveos." Killing the Vibe just because its brand is going away seems as obtuse as the solution is obvious. Unfortunately, it's also par for the course at GM.
Bankruptcy is temporary, but stupid is forever.