GM Faces Another Challenge As EV Output Stalls: Investors

There are two stories to be told about General Motors in 2023. The first story one is yet another year of strong profits (barring any unforeseen Q4 disasters) thanks to sales of the thing it arguably does best: sales of gasoline-powered trucks and SUVs. The second story is about The Future, or at least, what investors want to see out of The Future. And that part isn’t going especially well for CEO Mary Barra as she heads into her 10th year in the top job; a lot of that can be filed under “Fine, For Now,” but it’s starting to feel like the clock is ticking more and more on that front. 

Welcome back to another installment of Critical Materials, InsideEVs’ new Monday-Thursday morning news roundup. Today we’re talking about the state of things for Barra and the electric-autonomous transformation of the car industry, and then we’re headed down to Mexico. No, not to party, but to talk about battery factories, although I think that’s fun too. (I could also use more hobbies outside of work.)

30%: Mary Barra, The Future, And The ‘Get GM’s Stock Price Up Finally’ Challenge

Objectively speaking, Barra has been the best CEO that GM has ever had. Yes, the bar for that is low when that job has mostly been occupied by goons like Roger Smith and Rick Wagoner. But none of that should negate how important Barra has been to GM, the global auto industry and America’s largest car company. She’s a trailblazer as the first woman in that role, has kept GM’s profits consistently high, took a chainsaw to the worst and most stagnant aspects of GM’s culture, oversaw the best (but not the most diverse) product portfolio it’s ever had and generally righted the ship in the years after the chaos of the bailouts and the Great Recession.

The trouble these days is with what’s next. In 2016 and 2017, respectively, Barra made some hugely ambitious news by acquiring autonomous robotaxi company Cruise and vowing a future with “zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.” That meant pivoting to all-electric vehicles, even skipping over hybrids in the process.

By 2023, it’s safe—and unfortunate—to say neither of those efforts have gone great. Cruise this year saw the sacking of its founder and CEO and a reduced GM investment after some high-profile crash incidents, and the rollout of its new generation of “Ultium”-branded EVs has been plagued with delays and technical problems. Very few of the latter are on the road, despite big (and growing) promises of an all-EV lineup. 

So while Barra approaches her 10th year as CEO in January, she’s the subject of two recent look-ahead profiles from Reuters and the Wall Street Journal focusing on what’s becoming her biggest challenge: GM’s lagging stock price, which has been more or less flat for over a decade.

Here’s Reuters: 

General Motors CEO Mary Barra has made many bold moves during a decade on the job to lift the automaker’s share price: jettisoning money-losing operations in Europe, promising to outsell Tesla in the electric-vehicle market and betting billions on developing a profitable robotaxi business.

Investors are unmoved. GM shares are trading close to the $33 a share at which they went public in 2010 following the company’s government-financed bankruptcy. Since hitting $63 a share in November 2021, GM shares have fallen 47%.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway sold all its GM shares without explanation during the third quarter as the price slid to a two-year low during tough contract bargaining in the U.S. with the United Auto Workers.

“We didn’t execute well this year as it relates to demonstrating our EV capability and the capability of Ultium,” Barra told investors and analysts in a Nov. 29 call, referring to the automaker’s EV battery technology. “So I’m disappointed in that.”

And here’s the WSJ, with the good news and bad news:

In an interview last week at a media event, Barra said she continues to have confidence in both the electric and driverless-car parts of her strategy. She is sticking with a goal of producing one million EVs in North America in 2025, and still has faith that Cruise can lead the driverless race. 

“As you go through a technological transformation like this,” she said, “there’s going to be ups and downs.”

Shares hit a multiyear low last month, but have rallied back since GM disclosed plans in late November for a $10 billion stock buyback, paid for in part by slashing expenditures on EVs and Cruise robotaxis. The stock price is down about 11% from its level when Barra took the top job.

Even so, GM’s bottom-line performance has surged under Barra, as GM leaned into higher-margin business lines like trucks and SUVs and pulled back in low-return areas. During her tenure, operating profit nearly doubled from previous levels and consistently tops rivals. GM has beaten Wall Street earnings forecasts in 34 of the last 35 quarters, according to FactSet.

But if you’re an investor, you want to make a big bet on the future; Berkshire Hathaway’s move there is especially telling. In other words, GM is doing fine—great, even—with the conventional state of things in the auto industry. But when it comes to the long-term future that many expect to be dominated by electrification and autonomy, that’s far less the case.

Again, as both these stories note, Barra’s position hardly seems in doubt right now. And every car company has had struggles with this transformation and with rising interest rates, even Tesla.

But Barra once said 2023 would be “a breakout year” for EV production, and it very clearly wasn’t; one wonders if the CEO can afford another stumble in 2024. 

60%: U.S. Gives Mexico The Side-Eye As Chinese Automakers Consider EV Plants There

BYD Mexico

The threat that looms over the entire U.S. auto industry is China, a country whose car business seems to be getting the EV transition right—and has an iron grip on the supply chain involved with that, too. Chinese-made cars are still relatively uncommon here (Volvo, Polestar and Buick are a few outliers, while no China-specific brands are sold here yet) thanks to stiff 27.5% tariffs on cars built there.

In theory, nothing is stopping the Chinese automakers from setting up factories in Mexico to sell EVs in North America. Many of them are doing this now, or trying to. But don’t think the U.S. isn’t wise to those.

The Financial Times reports that “Washington has raised concerns with Mexico” as BYD, MG and Chery all eye factories south of the border.

I don’t want to use the word “threaten” here because that seems too strong, but the U.S. does seem to be leaning on its massive economic importance to Mexico and kind of implying, well, “don’t do anything stupid.” From the story:

US officials have raised questions about Chinese investment more broadly in meetings with Mexican counterparts, three people said. Mexican officials acknowledged they had to be cautious when considering Chinese investments because of the risks of upsetting the U.S.

Mexico is heavily dependent on the US, where more than two-thirds of its exports go and 37 million people of Mexican origin live and work, sending back almost $60 billion a year in remittances. Asked whether the investment screening agreement could harm Mexico-China business relations, Finance Minister Rogelio Ramírez de la O was blunt.

“Our trade and financial relationship with the US is completely dominant,” he said while sitting next to Yellen in the National Palace. “It’s not a great priority to dedicate time to countries other than the US.”

Make no mistake: China’s automakers have global plans, and factories in Mexico seem all but inevitable. It’s up to the U.S. how protectionist we want to get against this particular government, or with low-cost EVs that could hit our auto industry with a level of competition it isn’t yet prepared for. 

90%: Meanwhile, Mexico Tempers Its Tesla Expectations

Tesla Giga Mexico (Tesla Gigafactory 6)

Meanwhile, Mexico has its own headaches with a planned Tesla factory in Nuevo León. That one’s a big deal because it’s tentatively slated to make Tesla’s next-generation “affordable” EV said to target a $25,000 price tag, and CEO Elon Musk wants to build a fully autonomous robotaxi alongside that car. (I’ll spare you my thoughts on the latter move for now, but things aren’t going great on that front.) 

According to Bloomberg, Musk’s concerns over interest rates and issues with local infrastructure have made the whole thing a little iffy:

Nuevo Leon Governor Samuel Garcia envisioned Tesla shipping the first vehicles from its Mexico facility as soon as next year. Now, it’s unclear whether the plant will open even in 2025. The factory site is an empty stretch of cactus-ridden land along the highway, and the only indication Tesla is coming is a welcome sign from a local realtor peeking through a barbed-wire fence.

Musk said in October that while he still plans to build the plant, the chief executive officer was reluctant to move forward at “full tilt” because of high interest rates. In a more recent interview, Musk said that Tesla will produce its next-generation entry-level vehicle at its Texas factory first, since the Mexico facility won’t be ready in time. The battery-sourcing strategy for Tesla’s Mexico factory remains unclear.

It’s also mired in political issues, permitting challenges and water supply problems. Most people Bloomberg interviewed seem confident the plant will open eventually, but as Musk says, it’s certainly not moving at “full tilt.”

100%: What Does GM Need To Do In 2024?

Pretend, for a moment, that you’re a major GM shareholder and board member. (Not that I’m implying you aren’t, or can’t be, obviously. I believe in you and I always have.) If you pounded the table and demanded change, what would you ask for?