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GM profit misses estimates; losses in Europe deepen

The General Motors logo is seen outside its headquarters at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan in this file photograph taken August
The General Motors logo is seen outside its headquarters at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan in this file photograph taken August

By Ben Klayman and Deepa Seetharaman

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co reported a weaker-than-expected fourth-quarter profit on Thursday, citing wider losses in Europe and lower vehicle prices plus higher costs in its core North American market.

But its shares rose slightly as the largest U.S. automaker also made an accounting change in the quarter, intended to signal confidence that it will continue to be profitable in coming years.

"An entrenched GM investor may see no need to sell, while a prospective investor may see no need to rush in," Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said in a research note.

Last year was GM's second full year as a public company since its initial public offering in the autumn of 2010, which followed the bankruptcy restructuring and $50 billion U.S.-taxpayer bailout of the prior year.

Europe remains a drag for the auto industry with several analysts citing a wider-than-expected quarterly loss by GM in that region.

"It's going to be challenging for another few years," Edward Jones analyst Christian Mayes, who has a "hold" rating on GM's stock, said of Europe. "They're moving in the right direction, but it's difficult over there to move fast because it's so challenging to shut down plants."

GM posted a profit of 48 cents per share before one-time items, 3 cents shy of what analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S had expected.

Losses in Europe totaled $699 million in the quarter and $1.8 billion for all of 2012, more than doubling from 2011, reflecting the rapid deterioration of vehicle demand and economic conditions in the region. It was the 13th straight year of losses in Europe.

Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann said GM still sees industry sales in Europe declining in 2013 and is "not betting on" a pickup later in the year.

"Europe was a little lighter, although I don't think people are going to really punish the stock for a few pennies miss in Europe just because we're probably at or near the bottom of that cycle," said Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold, who has a "hold" rating on GM's shares.

During the fourth quarter, prices fell in North America, GM's most profitable region, as the company offered incentives to cut through its inventory of trucks on dealer lots. GM also saw a $400 million increase in costs over the previous year.

"The (decline in price) is essentially setting up to work through some of the inventory of some of the products that are getting replaced in the marketplace," Ammann told reporters.

It was the first drop in North American pricing for GM since the first quarter of 2011. Morgan Stanley's Jonas had expected a decline of $100 million.

Jefferies' Nesvold said the weaker Japanese yen and the deteriorating European market will likely lead many automakers to increase competitive pressures in North America.

That would continue the trend seen in the fourth quarter when GM lost one percentage point of U.S. market share despite raising its incentives slightly, according to research firm TrueCar.com.

Net income in the fourth quarter rose to $892 million, or 54 cents a share, from $472 million, or 28 cents a share, a year earlier.

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For a GM graphic see: http://link.reuters.com/ruf95t

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The quarter included a $34.9 billion reversal of a tax reserve on U.S. and Canadian deferred tax assets. The move, which rival Ford Motor Co made in late 2011, reflects confidence in GM's business going forward.

GM also took an associated noncash goodwill asset impairment charge of $26.2 billion, wrote down $5.2 billion worth of assets in Europe, and took a charge of $2.2 billion for its action last summer to cut its U.S. salaried pension obligation.

The automaker also wrote down $220 million, or about half, of its investment in French alliance partner PSA Peugeot Citroen . GM, which paid $423 million for its 7 percent stake in Peugeot, warned last August it might take such an action due to the deepening fiscal crisis in Europe.

Ammann said on Thursday GM had no plans to provide additional funds to Peugeot. "We have no intention of putting more cash into Peugeot," he said.

GM's revenue in the fourth quarter rose 3 percent to $39.3 billion, above the $39.15 billion analysts had expected.

For all of 2012, GM earned $4.9 billion, down from a record $7.6 billion in 2011 due to higher tax rates and weakness in Europe. The results in 2011 included $1.2 billion in favorable items related to asset sales, while 2012 had $500 million in unfavorable items.

GM's shares rose about 21 cents to $28.88 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Reporting By Ben Klayman and Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, John Wallace and Maureen Bavdek)

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