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Why Is Buffett Buying GM?

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Interesting news for auto-watchers: Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) , the savvy conglomerate controlled by the great Warren Buffett, disclosed in an SEC filing on Thursday that it had bought 10 million shares of General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) .

That comes on top of another 15 million shares of GM Berkshire bought earlier in 2012, bringing the total value of the company's investment in the General to nearly $700 million as of Thursday's close.

That's not chump change, even by Buffett's standards. What might Berkshire be thinking?

Is GM a value stock?
The obvious guess for anyone who knows anything about Buffett's career is that he (or, more likely, Berkshire's new portfolio managers, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler) thinks that GM is undervalued at current price, particularly when viewed in the context of where the business is likely to go over the next several years

I happen to agree, which is why I own (somewhat less than 25 million shares of) GM stock myself. But it requires some explaining, because GM isn't really undervalued by the most basic traditional measures. Its current price-to-earnings ratio is around 10.4, roughly the long-term norm for auto stocks.

But it may well be undervalued after taking into account the huge amount of room for improvement available in GM's global operations -- and current management's determination to make those improvements and realize GM's full value.

Big gains await GM's Europe turnaround
GM lost $1.8 billion in Europe last year and expects significant losses to continue for at least another year or two. The problems are a lot like those GM had in the U.S. a decade ago: too much production capacity, too-high costs, and declining sales -- in the case of Europe, because of a deep, protracted recession.

But GM CEO Dan Akerson has set in motion a major effort to overhaul GM's sick European operation. A new management team is in place, a factory has been closed, another has been sold, a cost-saving joint-venture with French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroen (NASDAQOTH: PUGOY  ) has been established, and a bunch of new products are coming.

GM CEO Dan Akerson reiterated on Thursday that he expects GM Europe to break even on a pre-tax basis by "mid-decade". Consider that GM made $6.19 billion in 2012. If GM had simply broken even in Europe last year, that number would have jumped to about $8 billion before taxes -- with no other changes or improvements to GM's global operations.

And the thing is, other changes and improvements are already happening.

Improvements at home are already in motion
Despite posting three profitable years in a row since its emergence from bankruptcy, GM is still very much a turnaround work in progress. It still has some catching up to do before it can match Ford (NYSE: F  ) or Toyota's (NYSE: TM  ) end-to-end product quality here in the U.S. -- or for that matter, Ford's profit margins here.

But what isn't visible to casual observers is that the work needed to narrow that gap is already happening. For the past three years, GM has been working on a full-on product overhaul that is just now hitting its stride. Products like the Chevy Cruze and Sonic small cars, and last year's Cadillac ATS sedan, have proven that GM can design and build vehicles that really do compete well with the world's best.

Over the next couple of years, GM will go from having North America's oldest product lineup to its newest, as a slew of all-new cars and trucks hit its dealers. If they're competitive – and GM's recent track record inspires some confidence – those new products should improve GM's average transaction prices, driving fatter margins.

The upshot: A lot of upside for GM
The case for GM isn't quite as much of a slam-dunk as the case for Ford. Ford's North American operation is already robustly healthy, and the Blue Oval's proven management team is taking the same approach to restructuring its European operation, which has problems (and losses) similar to GM's.

GM still has more challenges at home than Ford does, and unlike Ford, its management team doesn't already have one impressive turnaround under its belt. But given GM's still-impressive global scale, the potential upside may be considerably higher. It's not hard to understand why Team Buffett chose to jump in.

It's true that decades of mismanagement of General Motors led to a painful bankruptcy in 2009, but it emerged a leaner, stronger company. GM's turnaround, however, is still a work in progress. Investors around the world are wondering if GM has what it takes to reclaim its former glory. I've put together a brand-new premium research report telling you exactly what you need to know about GM and its turnaround. If you own or are thinking about owning GM, then you don't want to miss this report. Click here now to get started.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2013, at 12:52 PM, spawn44 wrote:

    GM will no doubt be a great long term investment, but I think Ford's returns will be much better. I am thinking there may be another reason, maybe political, to favor GM.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2013, at 2:47 PM, DoctorLewis4 wrote:

    Buffett is not buying GM. One of his two guys is. The article is correct - the headline is not.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2013, at 5:56 PM, Jason87467 wrote:

    Buffett is picking GM because he's no dummy. Ford is doing great now because many are angry at GM because they accepted government help. Ford accepted help too, but the media kept it hushed up. GM has the better infrastructure and engineers and in the end will far surpass Ford.,2933,528409,00.html

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2013, at 12:23 PM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    @spawn44: I don't think there's a hidden political agenda. I think there's a good argument that GM has more *potential* upside than F because it's less far along in its turnaround. That makes it a more intriguing bet in some ways. (I own both, of course.)

    Of course, there's also more risk with GM. Put simply, we know F's management team is excellent, because their execution since 2006 has made that clear. GM's... the jury is still out.

    @DoctorLewis4: If we're picking nits, the truth is that all we can say is that Berkshire has bought GM stock. We don't know who made the call. Could have been all three of them, deciding together. Or not.

    Thanks for reading.

    John Rosevear

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2013, at 1:39 PM, Gettinitagain wrote:

    I personally think that Buffet is politically buying GM to make the adminstration look like they suceeded. However, we the taxpayers are going to take it in the shorts to the tune of 10's of billions of dollars. GM has portrayed that they have paid back all or most of the money "lent" them, when the facts are quite the contrary.....If GM wants to regain it's status, then it needs to not only pay all loans back in full, buy it's stock back from us taxpayers at whats owed rather than at a 50% + discount, (market $'s versus actual cost to taxpayer), and further pay restitution to all of the bond holders /stock holders who lost all their investments when GM filed for bankrupancy.

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