VW in pole position for 2017 comeback

Volkswagen dealership
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Time to take down the stockings, tuck away the ornaments and get shopping! Because as any bargain-hunter knows, the disappointment that comes from not getting what you want under the tree, is easily forgotten by trading up for something better during the January sales.

That may be the hope of Volkswagen Chief Executive Matthias Mueller who told me at the Paris Motor Show in September that he wanted a Christmas gift from the U.S.Department of Justice (DOJ), in the form of a settlement over the emissions-cheating scandal.

The German car maker went to great lengths to close the case in the U.S. by year end–securing multi-billion dollar deals with a U.S. judge to fix more than half a million vehicles carrying the defeat device and pledging additional funds to tackle climate change and promote electric-car sales. That's good news for VW's bid to move from 'naughty' to 'nice' in the eyes of angry customers and eco-conscious drivers, but it wasn't enough for Santa to seal the deal with the DOJ. Nevertheless, time may be on VW's side.

Lingering uncertainty

The DOJ criminal fine is expected to be finalized before President Barak Obama leaves office on January 20. If the settlement goes according to planned, VW could be in pole position to outperform its peers in 2017.

Lingering uncertainty surrounding the eventual bill paid to the DOJ has largely kept the stock in check. Despite a 2 percent increase over 12 months, shares are still off around 19 percent since their pre-Diesel crisis level. Much of the bad news has arguably been priced in.

Evercore ISI Analyst Arndt Ellinghorst, who holds a buy rating on VW, expects the DOJ fine to land at around $3 billion, which would be covered by the company's 18.2 billion euro diesel provisions already set aside.

Anything north of $5 billion, however, would be short-term negative, Ellinghorst says. It would also break the current record fine under US federal environmental laws, set by BP's charge for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Speaking to me in September, VW CEO Mueller refused to comment on a report that the DOJ was evaluating how much it could fine the German carmaker without forcing it into bankruptcy, insisting the company believed that the current provisions were sufficient to cover expected legal liabilities.

The doubters surrounding VW's investment case will point to other legal unknowns threatening the company: from shareholder lawsuits filed in Germany to fresh calls from European regulators to seek US-style compensation for drivers, but these risks pale in comparison to the punitive damages being sought in the United States, where the crisis began.

On the latter issue, recent sales data in Europe suggests drivers may be less offended by emissions-cheating than the bureaucrats in Brussels. Volkswagen managed to eke out a small annual gain in market share across the EU in November for the first time since the Diesel scandal.

The rebound came in the same month that saw VW's top brass unveil an impressive plan to turn around profits and cut costs at the struggling namesake bank. If you're still unconvinced that Volkswagen is close to burying its diesel sins in the dust you might be better persuaded by the same logic drawing bargain hunters to the high street this week.

VW is trading near six times 2017 earnings, compared to German rivals BMW and Daimler, which trade closer to 8 and 9 times full-year earnings.

It is January, after all. Time to forget the mistakes and disappointments of 2016 and go shopping for some discounts.

Nancy Hungerford Nancy is a reporter and anchor for CNBC covering corporate, economic and geopolitical events. You can follow Nancy on Twitter @NancyCNBC.

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