What's happening: Volkswagen (NASDAQOTH:VLKAY) has until Friday to submit its plan to fix 482,000 diesel cars with illegal emissions software to U.S. regulators. Once the plan is approved by regulators in Washington and California, VW is expected to begin recalling the vehicles.
Separately, VW is also expected to release details of the deep spending cuts it will make to grapple with the costs of the scandal. Both could give investors some insight into the eventual costs of the crisis.
A step toward fixing the affected vehicles
VW has essentially admitted to selling millions of diesel-powered vehicles equipped with software that turns on emissions controls only when it detects that a test is underway. In normal driving, the cars emit much greater levels of pollutants than are allowed under U.S. law.
About 11 million vehicles worldwide contain the software, VW has said. 482,000 of those are in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), working with the powerful California Air Resources Board (CARB), has charged VW with violations of the Clean Air Act that leave the company exposed to as much as $18 billion in potential fines.
The admissions have outraged owners who bought "clean diesel" VWs in part because of environmental concerns. VW has begun offering owners of the affected vehicles a package of benefits, including a $500 prepaid Visa card, $500 in credit usable at VW dealerships, and three years of 24-hour roadside assistance.
Many owners have said that the offer doesn't come close to compensating them for the deception, but U.S. chief Michael Horn said in a press conference earlier this week that about 120,000 owners have signed up for the so-called "goodwill" program so far. Horn said that the addresses collected in the sign-up process will speed the process of communicating with owners once the recalls are underway.
How this is affecting VW
VW's stock has lost more than a third of its value since the EPA first announced its charges in September. Sales of VW-powered vehicles fell more than 5% around the world last month, and the company is resorting to heavy discounts to draw buyers in the U.S.
VW has already set aside nearly $10 billion to pay costs related to the crisis. But that may be just the beginning. Not only will VW have to bring all of the cars into compliance with emissions laws (a process that may require substantial and expensive modifications to many of them), but it will also be exposed to fines and potential criminal penalties around the world.
The crisis is believed to have put many of VW's new-product and expansion plans on hold. The company's supervisory board has been working on an extensive cost-cutting plan; details of that plan are expected to be made public on Friday.
For investors: Not yet
Smart investors know that when a good company hits hard times, its beaten-up stock can turn out to be a great buy in the long run. Mindful of the recoveries made by Toyota and General Motors (NYSE:GM) in their scandals in recent years, many value-minded investors have been eyeing VW. But I continue to think that it's not yet time to buy, simply because we don't yet have a clear idea of how badly VW will be wounded by this scandal. We don't yet even know for sure that all of VW's illegal acts have been disclosed.
(Contrast VW's slow-moving disclosure process with GM CEO Mary Barra's prompt actions to release information during GM's recall scandal. GM was able to limit the damage in part because it got everything out in the open quickly -- a standard recommendation among crisis-management professionals. VW's slow process is giving the appearance of foot-dragging. That's likely to make regulators unhappy, and it could leave the VW brand with longer-lasting damage.)
VW's cost-cutting plan should give us a clearer picture of how the crisis will impact the business over the next several years. Once it's released, we'll revisit this question. But for right now, at least, I say it's too early to know whether VW is a buy at current prices.
John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. 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.