General Motors running better, but investors couldn't care less

Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of General Motors, holds a media briefing at the 2016 GM Annual Meeting of Shareholders on June 7, 2016 in Detroit.
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General Motors CEO Mary Barra was all smiles when she met reporters before the company's annual meeting Tuesday morning.

Who could blame her?

Thanks to strong sales in North America, the automaker is riding one of the most profitable periods in its more than 100-year history. Her mood was particularly notable given its stark contrast to just two years ago, when the grim-faced CEO announced the scathing results of an internal investigation into its deadly ignition switch scandal.

Since that day, when Barra said GM suffered from a "pattern of incompetence and neglect," she and her company have delivered steady improvements on a number of key metrics. That is, with one large and glaring exception: its stock price.

Shares of General Motors are down more than 15 percent since June 5, 2014, compared with a slightly positive S&P 500. That includes a steeper than 10 percent decline this year, despite the automaker raising its earnings guidance in January.

So why are investors ignoring GM?

Decline in GM May US sales
Decline in GM May US sales

Susquehanna analyst Matt Stover attributed the drop in GM's share price to expectations that there will be "massive negative earnings" at some point in the future, as the cyclical auto industry comes off record-high sales.

"A lot of people are saying, 'I should take all forecasts regarding future profits with a huge grain of salt,'" Stover said.

The analyst likewise expressed doubt that GM's stock would move substantially higher until the company shows its balance sheet can weather a recession — something automakers have historically struggled to do well.

Though he does not have any immediate fears surrounding a recession, these periods are particularly rough on automakers, who have to balance investing in future products with conserving cash.

"Until they can prove they can handle falling sales and lower profits in a recession, the stock's multiple will not grow," Stover said.

Speaking with reporters before GM's annual meeting, Barra barely mentioned the company's lagging stock.

"We are growing margins, [and] having record EBIT margins improving across the board," she said. "We are going to stay and continue to do what we say we are going to do and we believe over time that will be reflected in the share price."

During the meeting, one shareholder asked whether GM's U.S. market share, which slipped to 15.7 percent in May, has dropped too low as a result of the company passing up less-profitable sales of fleet vehicles to rental car companies and private firms.

Barra responded by saying, "We are very focused on market share, but we also work on profitable market share growth."

Clarification: GM's U.S. market share was 15.7 percent in May. That was not clear in an earlier version.