What striking workers get wrong about automaker profits

General Motors spent $21 billion on stock buybacks during the last 12 years. It should give more money to assembly-line workers, instead.

That’s the logic of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which is staging an intensifying strike against all three Detroit automakers. So far, nearly 13,000 UAW members have walked off the job. The union has threatened other walkouts on a weekly basis and to ratchet up the pain on GM, Ford, and Jeep-parent Stellantis.

The inevitable PR war is breaking out as each side digs in. In the Detroit Free Press on Sept. 20, GM president Mark Reuss said GM has already made a “record offer” to striking workers, while arguing that GM has reinvested the vast majority of its profits in new facilities during the last 10 years. The next day, UAW vice president Mike Booth rebutted those claims, saying GM has been “lavishing Wall Street with the results of our labor,” including stock buybacks. A key plank of the UAW’s demands is that the Detroit 3 have been minting profits and need to share more of the lucre with the rank and file.

It’s true the D3 have enjoyed a nice run of profitability since emerging from the chaos of the Great Recession, when GM and Stellantis forerunner Chrysler declared bankruptcy and Ford nearly did. During the last five years, the D3 combined have earned $99 billion in net income, according to data from S&P Capital IQ.

But any amount of profitability is meaningless unless compared with that of competitors. And next to other big automakers, plus upstarts such as Tesla, the Detroit 3 don’t look nearly so rich.

The following chart shows D3 profitability compared with the biggest automakers in Japan and Europe—Toyota and Volkswagen—along with Tesla, which only makes electric vehicles. GM and Ford trailed the other four in total profits last year, though Stellantis did better. On profit margin, Tesla beats them all, with a 15.4% margin in 2022, compared with 9.4% for Stellantis, 6.3% for GM and -1.3% for Ford, which had a small loss in in 2022.

Here’s the average profit margin for 11 big automakers during the last 10 years. Toyota’s average profit margin of 7.3% is about as good as it gets for a global automaker operating in every segment. The D3 are considerably below that.

Tesla’s average margin is negative because it only started earning a profit in 2020. But it now has double-digit margins other automakers can only dream about.

What about each company’s future prospects? Past profitability doesn’t tell you much about that, but the stock price is supposed to reflect the market’s best guess about future profitability. By that standard, GM and Ford have been dismal performers, with GM down 15% during the last 10 years and Ford down 29%. The broader market was up 141% during the same time frame.

Stellantis has done better, with the stock up 283% since 2013. But that may reflect catch-up from the dismal days when Fiat-Chrysler emerged from Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy as a weird US-European mashup, eventually morphing into a company that involves brands as diverse as Jeep, Ram, Fiat, Citroën, Peugeot, Vauxhall, and Maserati.

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The D3 have done well during the last few years because they’ve pared many small, barely profitable vehicles from their US lineups, relying heavily on large trucks and SUVs with hefty margins. Consumers have spent with abandon, aided by low interest rates for several years, then by trillions of dollars in COVID stimulus in 2020 and 2021 meant to keep the US economy going strong.

Striking United Auto Workers walk the picket line outside the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, U.S. September 15, 2023.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Striking United Auto Workers walk the picket line outside the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, U.S. September 15, 2023. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

But investors aren’t sanguine about the three automakers’ futures, as the market shifts from the gas-powered models that have dominated for a century to electrics that require completely different technology and massive amounts of upfront investment. Ford says it will lose several billion dollars on EVs this year. General Motors has struggled with technology problems and delayed EV rollouts. Stellantis says EV sales, mostly in Europe, have contributed to profitability, but it still needs deep cost cuts to stay profitable.

Tesla is in a different category, given that it has no gas-powered vehicles to transition away from. Yet Tesla burned cash and lost billions before turning its first annual profit in 2020. Tesla’s stock has soared to stratospheric highs because investors think the pain of building robust EV infrastructure is largely in the past and Tesla will eventually displace many legacy automakers. Much of the pain for the Detroit 3, by contrast, is still in the future.

The D3 are the only fully unionized automakers in the United States, and they already have higher labor costs than Tesla and all the foreign brands that operate US factories. The UAW is now demanding pay hikes that would raise that cost differential even more.

On paper, maybe the Detroit 3 can afford to pay workers more and shareholders less. But nobody is asking their competitors to do that, and some of those competitors already enjoy advantages. The Detroit automakers aren’t the titans they used to be, and they’re not the titans the UAW seems to think they are, either.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman.

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