Will Customers Ultimately Ditch General Motors Company?

Although sales have yet to take a hit due to the numerous recalls, will customers start buying non-GM vehicles?

May 28, 2014 at 6:30PM

It was a rough five-day stretch for shareholders in General Motors (NYSE:GM). Starting on May 15 and stretching over the weekend into May 20, the automaker announced a combined recall of 5.1 million vehicles, a second-quarter charge of $400 million, and received a $35 million fine from the Department of Transportation. 

Following the tough first quarter -- where the automaker took roughly $2 billion in charges -- and amid the ignition switch recall scandal, many investors were hoping to turn the page in the second quarter. So far, the transition has not been smooth. In fact, it has only gotten worse. 

The one shining star
Through everything however, there's been one glimmer of hope for shareholders, which may or may not begin to dim in the coming months: auto sales.

Vehicle sales in the United States remain strong, with the seasonally adjusted annual rate pressing 16 million units.

Even General Motors has done well. Below is a look at the February, March, and April U.S. sales results following the ignition switch recall in mid-February:

Month Sales Volume Year-Over-Year Change 


222,104 (1%)


256,047 7%
April 254,076 7%

Source: General Motors Sales Releases 

As you can see, sales have yet to fall in the months following the fatal ignition switch recall announcement. But the main question still lingers for investors: Will they? 

That's really hard to say. On one hand, many of my personal conversations with consumers have led me to believe that they are disgusted and fed up with the continuous recalls and feel better off buying from Ford (NYSE:F), Toyota Motors (NYSE:TM), or Fiat Chrysler. And who can blame them for that?

On the other hand, perhaps customers simply view the ignition switch recall as an event that was covered up by previous management roughly 10 years ago. Because of the time gap and personnel change, there's no reason to forgo driving a GM vehicle. That could be possible.

But as the company continues to announce more recalls -- 2.7 million vehicles on May 15, 2.4 million vehicles on May 20, and 240,000 vehicles on May 21 -- it makes one wonder: Will the customers eventually leave? 

Not just investors are taking notice
Naturally, when the recalls are announced and fatal ones are covered up, investors instantly become concerned with the costs and legal ramifications for the automaker. Perhaps the broader public does not look at these events as negatively as the investing community does. 

But with the year-to-date recall count now over 13.8 million vehicles, it wouldn't be surprising if America is starting to pay attention.

If sales begin to take a hit, and I'm not certain that they will, June seems like the most likely month to show the affects, (meaning the sales release in July). The recent recalls involving some 5.3 million vehicles is probably too late in the month to show that much affect in the May sales results. No one will know until early June, when the report is released. 

The public's perception of General Motors has been damaged ever since it was bailed out by the U.S. Government -- being dubbed by many as "Government Motors" -- and these massive recalls and the criminal investigation can't be helping matters. 

What investors should watch for
So far sales have yet to take a hit, but there would be little to no surprise if sales did ultimately dip. So investors who are long or are eyeing a position in the stock, please do pay attention to the monthly sales results. 

Without the weather to blame, auto sales should remain strong. If competitors like Ford, Toyota and Chrysler are posting year-over-year monthly sales gains, and GM ceases to do the same, then you'll know customers are taking a pass on the automaker. 

Also, keep in mind the victims' compensation and fines from the Justice Department are unlikely to be cheap and are unknown headwinds going forward. In previous articles, I have estimated that these two events could cost the automaker around $2 billion. It's just something to keep in mind. 

Most of the risks at General Motors are known, and likely getting priced into the stock. The potential sales hit is not one of them though, in my mind. Because so far, they have yet to drop. If sales do get hit, General Motors will be in trouble.

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Bret Kenwell owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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