General Motors (GM 2.69%) closed out 2017 in dramatic style last week, posting a pre-tax profit that matched its all-time record 2016 result, thanks to a fourth quarter that beat Wall Street's expectation by a wide margin.
Following the report, CEO Mary Barra and CFO Chuck Stevens held a conference call for investors, in which they explained that 2017 was a step in a journey toward higher profits that they expect to continue for the next several years.
Here are three highlights from that call.
1. GM's new pickups are designed to be superprofitable
While we've done very well with the current truck franchise, we think there's significant upside with the next generation, because we've released a number of constraints that we've had that will allow us to drive richer mix. -- Stevens
GM is gearing up to launch all-new versions of its full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups later this year. As Stevens explained, these are completely all-new, redesigned from the ground up to be lighter in weight and more capable. In addition, the new trucks will be offered with more upscale trims and options than the current models.
But there's more to this than the design of the trucks themselves. Because of the way GM set up its assembly lines for the current trucks, the number of crew-cab models it can make is limited -- and demand has exceeded supply. That has put GM at a disadvantage to rivals Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and (especially) Ford Motor Company, which don't have the same constraints.
As it gears up to launch the new trucks this fall, GM is shuffling several of its assembly lines in North America so that it can make more of the (more profitable) crew-cab trucks.
The upshot: GM expects all of that to translate into higher average transaction prices and fatter profit margins -- or as Stevens put it, a "richer mix" of trucks sold. That's likely to give GM's bottom line a boost starting in early 2019.
2. GM will spend big on self-driving tech this year
[Our] spend on transportation-as-a-service is expected to increase by about $400 million in 2018 versus 2017 as we prepare to deploy self-driving vehicles in a ride-share environment in 2019. -- Stevens
GM announced last fall that it is gearing up to deploy "thousands" of self-driving vehicles in urban ride-hailing services sometime in 2019. Stevens said the company spent about $600 million on its autonomous-vehicle development program in 2017, a year in which its subsidiary Cruise Automation announced it had created a "mass-producible" self-driving vehicle based on the electric Chevrolet Bolt.
The takeaway is that GM will spend even more in 2018. As Stevens explained, GM's total spending on autonomous-vehicle development will increase by $400 million to roughly $1 billion this year.
3. GM will buy back more stock in 2018
We returned $6.7 billion to our shareholders through $2.2 billion in dividends and $4.5 billion in stock repurchases through 2017. -- Stevens
As GM executives see it, the company's commitment to returning excess cash to shareholders is a key reason to own GM stock. GM targets a cash reserve of $18 billion, and returns any free cash above that number to shareholders via dividends and an ongoing stock-repurchase program. Since 2012, it has returned about $25 billion.
GM's 2018 guidance calls for about $5 billion in free cash flow. Here's how that is likely to be portioned out:
We pay dividends, so that'll be $2.2 billion. That'll leave $2.8 billion for other actions, other actions being M&A [mergers and acquisitions] -- not that I'm suggesting there's anything on the radar, but that's what that's for -- and/or restructuring and/or share buybacks. And I would say, as we go through the year, you would start with a $2.8 billion kind of opportunity for share buybacks, and we'll see what develops. But to the extent that we have free cash flow available, that's what we're going to do. We're going to buy back shares. -- Stevens
The upshot: GM will continue to repurchase shares in 2018, but how much it will be able to spend will depend on circumstances as the year unfolds. The related takeaway for investors is that GM means it when it says that it will return "excess" cash to shareholders -- if an opportunity comes up to invest in the business, it'll spend the cash on that instead.