General Motors third-quarter earnings widely beat expectations

General Motors stock down despite earnings beat

General Motors reported much higher-than-expected third-quarter earnings on strong North American truck and SUV sales, calming fears that a U.S. auto market slowdown would dent profitability.

GM said Tuesday that it expected full-year results would be on the "high end" of its previous forecast of $5.50 to $6.00 a share. Although overall U.S. car and light truck sales are flat for the year, GM said it increased its share of sales to individual consumers during the third quarter, and reduced the cost of discounts needed to close deals.

Rival Ford Motor, due to release third-quarter results Thursday, warned in July that a slowing U.S. auto market would put its full-year profit forecast at risk.

The contrast between the GM and Ford outlooks in part reflects different bets on oil prices in the past. Ford during the past decade spent heavily to boost the efficiency of its top-selling F-series pickup truck by engineering a light, aluminum body, cut back production of large sport utilities and focused on small- and medium-sized cars.

Ford executives have told analysts that with gasoline prices relatively low, it is harder to recover the costs of fuel-saving technology from consumers.

GM stuck with the large SUV market, and now controls more than 70 percent of that market in North America. Models such as the Cadillac Escalade start at more than $70,000.

GM shares were down 2.3 percent to $32.22 in early trading. Despite $5 billion in stock repurchases during the past year, the company's stock has fallen 3 percent for the year so far, and has languished below the $33 a share at which it debuted after the automaker's 2009 bankruptcy filing.

GM's results and its outlook depend primarily on strong U.S. and Chinese economies. The company said it lost money in Europe, South America and in Asian markets outside of China.

The third-quarter loss in Europe totaled about $100 million. Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens told reporters on Tuesday that achieving break-even results for Europe this year will be "very, very challenging."

GM is "prepared to take whatever action is necessary" to achieve its goal of returning European operations to profitability, Stevens said, without offering specifics.

The company is impacted when the value of the pound drops because it builds many of the vehicles it sells in the United Kingdom in Germany, Spain and other countries that use the euro. Stevens said GM raised vehicle prices in the U.K. by 2.5 percent on Oct. 1.

Overall, GM said third-quarter net income more than doubled to $2.8 billion, or $1.76 a share, from a year earlier.

Excluding a $110 million gain from litigation, earnings of $1.72 a share beat analysts' average estimate of $1.45, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue for the third quarter rose 10 percent to a record $42.8 billion, boosted by production of vehicles that went onto lots at GM's U.S. dealers. The company said that compared to a year ago, it had 110,000 more vehicles in stock at U.S. dealers as of Sept. 30.

Chief Executive Mary Barra has sought to convince investors that GM is not as vulnerable to the cyclical nature of U.S. vehicle sales as in the past, and is defending against challenges from technology companies and rivals such as Tesla Motors by developing its own advanced electric cars and autonomous driving technology.

GM saw another record quarter for its North American business thanks to an overall improvement in retail business, Stevens said.

In an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box," he said the company's much-better-than-expected earnings — in what is largely considered a "plateaued environment" among analysts and financial experts alike — are expected to continue.

"We're very, very optimistic about continuing to drive strong performance, 10-plus percent margins here in North America, even in a plateaued environment," Stevens said.

The CFO marked some of the company's main growth drivers as its sequential product launch, which he called its "launch cadence," and a fundamental restructuring of GM's crossover portfolio.

"We continue to see strength as expected and we're going to take advantage of that with our great products and our launch cadence," Stevens said.

— CNBC's Elizabeth Gurdus contributed to this report.