NEW YORK — A report that the US government plans to sell off much of its remaining stake in General Motors this year despite the firm's lackluster share price caused investors to flee the stock Tuesday.
After the Wall Street Journal reported a government sale could come within the next six months, GM's shares fell by nearly 1.3 percent to end at $29.59.
The government sale would "almost certainly" mean that US taxpayers would take a loss from a politically controversial $50 billion rescue of the auto giant in 2009, according to the paper.
The government would need to sell its roughly 500 million shares for $53 dollars each in order to break even, but GM's stock is currently hovering at a price of just under $30 per share.
At the current price, the government would lose more than $11 billion, but the Obama administration is willing to accept the loss in order to cut its last ties to the auto manufacturer, the newspaper said, citing unnamed sources.
The summer sale would make it more likely that the government could unload the remainder of its shares before the 2012 election season.
But officials said planning is still at an early stage and the Treasury Department was still considering options that would protect taxpayers while ending its stake in the company as soon as practicable.
The paper added that GM would back the sell-off because it would lift restrictions on executive pay that remain in place as long as the government is part owner.
Marking its successful emergence from bankruptcy in July 2009, GM raised $23.1 billion last November in the largest public offering in history.
It posted a 9.6 percent increase in US auto sales in March, but it has also been hit by rising gas prices and its stock has suffered since the exit last month of chief financial officer Chris Liddell, a key architect of the revival.
U.S. Hurries to Sell GM Stake
The U.S. government plans to sell a significant share of its remaining stake in General Motors Co. this summer despite the disappointing performance of the auto maker's stock, people familiar with the matter said.
A sale within the next several months would almost certainly mean U.S. taxpayers will take a loss on their $50 billion rescue of the Detroit auto maker in 2009.
To break even, the U.S. Treasury would need to sell its remaining stake—about 500 million shares—at $53 apiece. GM closed off 27 cents a share at $29.97 in 4 p.m. trading Monday on the New York Stock Exchange, hitting a new low since its $33-a-share November initial public offering.
"Planning for the sale of our remaining GM stock is still at an early stage, and the IPO lock-up does not expire until late May," a Treasury spokesperson said. "At that point, we will consider all of our options, based on our twin goals of protecting taxpayers' interests and exiting as soon as practicable."
Shares have been hurt by rising fuel prices, industry production disruptions and management turnover. At Monday's price, and taking into account shares sold during the IPO, taxpayers would lose more than $11 billion on the rescue if the government dumped the rest of its stake now.
Government officials are willing to take the loss because the Obama administration would like to sever its last ties to the auto maker, the people familiar with the matter said. A summer sale makes it more likely Treasury could sell all of its stake in GM by year's end, avoiding a potentially controversial sale in the 2012 presidential election year.
GM also would like an early exit in large part because it faces tight restrictions on executive pay as long as the U.S. government is a part owner.
GM's successful $23.1 billion IPO in November reduced the U.S. government's stake in GM to 26.5% from 61%. As a condition of the IPO, the Treasury isn't able to sell additional holdings before May 22.
At the time of the IPO, Treasury officials and banks underwriting the deal believed the price would climb through the winter, enabling the government to sell most or all of its remaining stake within weeks of the lifting of the sales restriction at a narrower loss to taxpayers, the people familiar said.
Shares have fallen by recent events that have undermined investor confidence in GM. Those include the rise in gas prices, which hurt sales of big, highly profitable trucks. Wall Street also is fretting over recent management moves such as the unexpected departure of Chief Financial Officer Chris Liddell.
Investors also were spooked by GM's sales-incentive blitz in January and February, which could temper the auto maker's first-quarter earnings. GM is expected to report next month that it made money in the first quarter and generated cash from operations, people familiar with the matter said.
The size and form of a summer share offering is under discussion at Treasury. A final decision hasn't been made by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who would need to sign off on a big sale. If GM shares dive, Treasury could decide to hold off longer. Unlike in the IPO, when the government, banks and GM worked closely together on the deal, the government has more leeway to decide how to proceed because GM has already gone public.
GM share price could become further depressed after investors holding bonds of the now-bankrupt "old-GM" receive warrants and stock for existing GM shares. That will happen April 21.
Treasury officials haven't contacted GM about a target date for the sale, a person familiar with the matter said. A sale in May is unlikely because Treasury would need time to put together a deal once the May share sales restriction lifts. July is unlikely because investors would likely want to see results from GM's quarter ending June 30. That leaves the months of June, August and September as the prime targets for an offering.