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Fun with Numbers: GM's Phony 'Payback' of Taxpayer Loans

One analyst is justifiably unimpressed: "Positive cash flow is being driven by dealer restocking and stretching payables." The available information bears him out. Chrysler's December 31 balance sheet showed negative working capital of over $6.5 billion, and a stunning in context $5.6 billion in trade liabilities. The company's first quarter 2010 financial release included no formal financial statements, but given that its sales during the period trailed last year's disastrous first quarter by over 5%, it's hard to see how it generated $1.5 billion in cash without even more interest-free borrowing from suppliers and vendors.

The two bailed-out companies had better hope that industry-wide sales ramp up sharply, and soon. That's because, despite the press's attempts to minimize the impact, their competitors are eating their lunch in the U.S. market. A smaller piece of a fast-growing pie may be GM's and especially Chrysler's only hope.

GM's March sales were barely ahead of Ford and Toyota, the latter in spite (maybe because?) of what has from all appearances beenĀ an orchestrated media-government campaign to discredit the company's safety record. Chrysler's puny first-quarter market share of 9.2% trailed Honda, and was barely ahead of Nissan.

The press continues to carry GM's and Chrysler's water, even when reporting poll results. Last week the Associated Press, after sitting on the informationĀ for 40 days, excitedly told readers that "Buy American" is back in the car business. Upon closer examination (i.e., looking at the actual poll data), I learned that Toyota's loss of 10% in best-quality mind share during the past four years was essentially offset by a 9% gain at Ford. GM's best-quality mind share dropped by 3%, while Chrysler's stayed the same.

So the only so-called "Buy American" beneficiary has been Ford. Since the early March AP poll seems to have been timed to hit Toyota when it was most vulnerable, it's reasonable to expect that the Japanese company's best-quality perception will come back a bit -- and when it does, it will likely hit GM and Chrysler much harder than Ford.

The government's efforts at propping up its two weak wards even extend to its fuel-economy benchmarks, also known as greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards. GM and Chrysler, with their heavier mixes of light trucks, have been given lower miles-per-gallon and GHG targets to hit in 2016 than their competitors. If saving the environment is so important, why do they get a break?

The GHG standards also have loopholes that would appear, at least initially, to benefit GM and Chrysler. Of particular interest is the so-called "super credit," whereby a manufacturer's sales of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles (e.g., the Chevy Volt and a portion of whatever teeny-tiny cars Chrysler part-owner Fiat will try to foist on the public) might be counted multiple times in determining fleet-wide miles per gallon and GHG emissions. Further, a number of lawmakers believe that the two companies' competitors may have been browbeaten last year into accepting stricter standards while GM and Chrysler were going through their bankruptcy proceedings. Tellingly, the Obama administration is refusing to release documents relating to those negotiations.

What is not yet known is the real wild card in the deck: How many more outraged Americans will refuse to buy GM and Chrysler vehicles because of the health care monstrosity foisted on the nation in March by the same government that controls them? We'll begin learning the answer to that question when April's figures come out.