General Motors (NYSE:GM) still takes a lot of heat for its 2009 "bailout" and high-speed bankruptcy proceeding.
That bailout was initiated by President Bush in late 2008, but it was President Obama's team that shepherded the wounded Detroit giant through a fast-packaged bankruptcy that left a lot of hard feelings in its wake.
Some of those hard feelings were politically motivated, of course, stoked by commentators unfriendly to the then-new administration. But many were a result of the decisions made during the court proceeding: Holders of Old GM's stock and bonds were left mostly empty-handed, while GM's union members were arguably rewarded.
A lot of those hard feelings continue to this day, and they sometimes drive some in the media to give big attention to little things that don't really matter all that much.
But I think all of that has obscured something very important, and that is this: General Motors is becoming a really interesting turnaround story.
And it might turn out to be a really profitable, albeit somewhat risky, investment.
Ford's example shows a path for GM
GM's turnaround hasn't been nearly as dramatic as old rival Ford's (NYSE:F) -- at least not yet. Most investors who watch auto stocks know that Ford has been (and continues to be) a truly great story, one that will be taught in business schools for decades to come.
Under amiable CEO Alan Mulally, Ford borrowed a ton of money and financed its own massive restructuring -- no bailout needed. The result: cars and trucks that went from so-so to genuinely excellent, and steady, strong profits that let Ford pay down that big debt and recover its investment-grade credit rating.
Ford continues to shine, expanding rapidly in Asia and applying the magic that fixed its U.S. operation to the challenges it still faces in Europe. There's no question, at least in my mind, that Ford's stock is still a buy, as the good work it is doing overseas should drive even more big gains in profits over the next few years.
Making the case for GM is more complicated, but I think it's worth making.
The huge global potential of General Motors
Like many industries, the auto business is very much a global one nowadays. And as an industry with huge fixed costs (all those factories, all that tooling, all those workers), economies of scale matter a lot.
That means size matters. Scale matters. GM spent decades stumbling, but it's still to this day one of the three global giants of the auto world, right up there in sales with its two peers, Toyota (NYSE:TM) and Volkswagen (OTC:VLKA.Y).
GM outsold VW and was close behind Toyota in 2012, but both of its rivals made a lot more money than the General did last year. Why? There are lots of reasons, but most of them boil down to efficiency: VW and Toyota are both more efficient in the way that they design and engineer their cars and trucks, and they both get greater benefits from those global economies of scale.
So why isn't GM doing something about that? Why isn't General Motors doing something to take better advantage of its massive global presence? Or, to be really blunt, why isn't GM making more money?
GM is working on it. In fact, it's been working on it for a while, but you might not have heard about it. And the moves they're making are good ones.
Below the radar, massive changes are already in motion at GM
Despite what you may hear in certain corners of the media, the people running GM nowadays are not dummies. In fact, CEO Dan Akerson and his senior team are sharper, more informed, and more realistic than any GM management team has been in a while.
One member of that senior team, GM product chief Mary Barra, presented a sweeping plan for reorganizing the way GM develops products way back in 2011. Under this plan, by 2018, GM will be building 90% of its vehicles on 14 platforms, down from about 30 in 2011.
That will lower the cost of developing new models significantly and allow GM to lavish more money and care on each -- a key part of the "One Ford" plan that has led to such great cars and trucks from GM's local rival.
What's more, Barra has already completely overhauled the way GM designs and approves new vehicles. For years, the company's product-development process was loaded with what she calls "churn." These are practices like stopping and starting development in response to economic changes or management whims, or letting senior managers demand expensive changes very late in the development process.
That's all gone now. Barra, with Akerson's enthusiastic support, fixed that. It's saving GM a billion dollars a year over the old way of doing things, and it means that from now on (actually, from 2011 on), GM's new cars and trucks will get to market faster.
That means they'll be more competitive. That means GM can sell them with fewer profit-sucking "incentives." And that will add more and more to GM's bottom line as it rolls out a slew of updated models over the next two years -- the first fruits of Barra's overhauled process.
Over the next few years, that pattern will play out all around the world, wherever GM does business. As it does, GM's profits (and, not coincidentally, the quality and desirability of GM's products) will start to look at lot more like Toyota's and VW's.
Think about what that will do for GM's stock price.
Before you buy, one more thought
GM isn't a short-term "grab it and wait for the pop" kind of investment. You should consider buying GM stock only if you're willing to be patient for the next few years as this story continues to unfold. And you should consider buying GM only if you're willing to pay close attention to what the company's doing so that you can stay confident that the story is continuing to unfold in the way we hope it will.
I do think a lot of the criticism of GM is misplaced. But this is a company that was very badly run for a long time. The current senior management team has mostly been impressive, but "Old GM" thinking still haunts some corners of the company.
That's a long-winded way of saying that this turnaround looks good so far, but it isn't a slam-dunk. Keep an eye on it.
But I'm more and more convinced that investors willing to take the plunge on GM will be well rewarded in time.