US government expects to sell remainder of its General Motors stock by year’s end

DETROIT – The U.S. government expects to sell the last of its stake in General Motors by the end of the year, bringing an end to a sad chapter in the 105-year-old auto giant’s history.

The Treasury Department, in a statement issued Thursday, said it still owns 31.1 million shares of the auto giant, less than two per cent. It plans to sell them by Dec. 31, as long as the price holds up.

Shares of GM briefly hit US$39 in trading early Thursday before finishing the day at $38.12, up 43 cents.

The US government received 912 million shares in exchange for a $49.5-billion bailout during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. So far it has recovered $38.4 billion of the money, but taxpayers would end up almost $10 billion short if the remaining shares are sold at current prices.

The Canadian and Ontario governments said in September they had sold a block of 30 million shares in General Motors valued at about C$1.1 billion, but continued to hold more than 119 million GM common shares and 16.1 million GM series A preferred stock through a federal agency.

So far they have not said specifically when more of their shares might go on the block.

“(Finance) Minister (Jim) Flaherty has said repeatedly that we will exit the government’s stake in General Motors in a timely manner,” his office said Thursday in an emailed response to a query.

“We will divest because government shouldn’t be in the car business, but we will divest appropriately over time to ensure we maximize the return for Canadian taxpayers.

Canada currently holds 110,084,746 common shares of GM, representing 7.9 per cent of outstanding shares, and 16,101,695 shares of GM Series A Preferred Stock

Both Ottawa and the Ontario government acquired GM shares in 2009 after providing C$10.6 billion in aid to bail the automaker out amid a recession that hit the auto industry particularly hard.

The investment is held on behalf of the two governments by Canada GEN Investment Corp., a subsidiary of the Canada Development Investment Corp.

Like the Canadian government, the U.S. governments said the bailouts of GM and were needed five years ago to save the auto industry and more than a million jobs. It never expected to get all of the money back.

“Had we not acted to support the automotive industry, the cost to the country would have been substantial — in terms of lost jobs, lost tax revenue, reduced economic production and other consequences,” Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Tim Bowler said in a statement.

The lack of government ownership should boost GM’s car and truck sales, North American President Mark Reuss said Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

GM was tagged with the derisive moniker “Government Motors,” and, at least initially, taking aid from the taxpayers kept some buyers away from GM vehicles. But company research later showed that subsided.

Taxpayers’ initially got a 61 per cent stake in GM in exchange for the bailout, which was needed because GM nearly ran out of cash and may have faced liquidation. Treasury gradually has sold off its stake since a November 2010 initial public offering.

In the U.S., once the government exits, GM will be free of restrictions on executive pay that came with the bailout. CEO Dan Akerson has complained that the restrictions have hurt GM’s ability to recruit executives.

GM went through bankruptcy protection and was cleansed of most of its huge debt, while stockholders lost their investments. Since leaving bankruptcy in 2009, GM has been profitable for 15 straight quarters, racking up almost $20 billion in net income on strong new products and rising sales in North America and China. It also has invested $8.8 billion in U.S. facilities and has added about 3,000 workers, bringing U.S. employment to 80,000.

The company now is sitting on $26.8 billion in cash and is considering restoration of a dividend. It hasn’t paid U.S. federal income taxes since leaving bankruptcy due to write-offs from accumulated net losses.

— With files from The Canadian Press