Romney: Despite possible losses, U.S. should shed its stake in GM

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the government should shed its stake in General Motors as soon as possible, even though selling the shares now would lock in billions of dollars in taxpayer losses.

“There is no reason for the government to continue to hold” its GM stake, Romney said in an interview with the Detroit News that was published Tuesday morning.

Romney accused President Obama of avoiding a sale of the government’s GM shares because the taxpayer losses would be politically damaging ahead of an election, adding that if Romney were elected, he would quickly sell the stock.

“I would get the company independent from government and run for the interests of the consumer and the enterprise and its workers — not for the political considerations of government officials,” Romney said.

If the government were to follow Romney’s prescription, it would mean at least $16 billion in losses. The Treasury Department and some auto analysts argue that GM’s shares are priced too low now and that waiting longer could help recoup more taxpayer money.

“The company has made real progress, but the market hasn’t given them as much credit for that as it might,” Timothy G. Massad, assistant secretary for financial stability in the Treasury Department, said in a statement. “Moving forward, we’ll continue to balance maximizing recovery for taxpayers with speed of exit.”

Three years after the historic auto bailout, the government still owns roughly 32 percent of GM’s common stock. But the company’s share price has slipped steadily since its initial public offering in November 2010, dropping about 38 percent.

On Tuesday, GM’s stock closed at $21.25 a share. The stock needs to reach $52 a share for the government to break even on its $49.5 billion investment. The government has recouped $24 billion of that total so far.

Industry analysts say that auto companies are facing depressed share prices because of broader economic concerns about Europe.

GM recorded its ninth straight profitable quarter at the beginning of this year, but there are questions about whether the company’s management can steer the company through an intensely competitive auto market.

“I’ve been in the business for 30-odd years,” said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds.com. “We always talk about how competitive it is, but it’s never been this competitive.”

Maryann Keller, a longtime analyst and author of the book “Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall, and Struggle for Recovery of General Motors,” said that GM’s initial offering price, like that of Facebook, overvalued the company at the time. Since then, Keller says, the company has faced “headwinds” in China and Brazil; it has also struggled to make money in Europe.

Quickly unwinding the government’s ownership of GM is tricky: Move too quickly and the markets could get spooked, sending the share price down and causing bigger taxpayer losses.

Romney “should know what happens when a company tries to liquidate 30 percent of its shares instantly,” Anwyl said.

Romney has run into some political trouble for his stance on the auto bailout. In November 2008, he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times with the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” in which he argued that a bailout of the auto industry would virtually guarantee its demise.

Now, Obama has been touting the success of the auto bailouts in ads.

The Romney campaign did not respond to questions about whether Romney would also immediately unwind the AIG investment if elected. The government still owns roughly 61 percent of insurance giant AIG.

The bailout programs remain a controversial part of Obama’s record. Treasury announced Tuesday that it will conduct auctions of stock positions in seven banks. The administration says it has recovered 82 percent, or $343 billion, of the $416 billion disbursed during the bailout.

Jia Lynn Yang is a staff writer at The Washington Post who covers policy and business. Before joining the Post, she worked at Fortune magazine.
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