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General Motors ekes out $294 million profit in the first quarter despite crippling production and sales from coronavirus

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Key Points
  • GM reported a $294 million profit for the first quarter despite the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic
  • The Covid-19 outbreak cut deeply into GM's performance, costing the largest U.S. automaker $1.4 billion before taxes during the first three months.
  • Of the Detroit automakers, GM was expected to be best positioned to weather a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic.
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General Motors beats on top and bottom lines despite coronavirus disruptions

General Motors said Wednesday it eked out a $294 million profit for the first quarter despite the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered factories and devastated sales. 

The Covid-19 outbreak cut deeply into GM's performance, costing the largest U.S. automaker $1.4 billion before taxes during the first three months of the year. Of the top U.S.-based automakers, GM has the biggest operations in China where the pandemic originated in late December and shuttered factories beginning in late January.

"We believe that we're positioned well to manage through this because we've taken swift actions to preserve liquidity," GM CFO Dhivya Suryadevara told reporters on a conference call Wednesday morning. She declined to provide an outlook for the company, saying the second quarter is expected to be the hardest hit by the pandemic.

GM's pretax earnings per share was 62 cents per share, topping Wall Street projections of 30 cents earnings per share, based on Refinitiv consensus estimates.

GM's earnings showed some of that strain already, with net profit sliding 86.7% from $2.2 billion during the same three months last year. On an adjusted basis, its pretax profit for the first quarter was $1.3 billion, down 45.9% from $2.3 billion a year earlier. Revenue also slipped, but not as much: It fell 6.2% to $32.7 billion in the quarter, down from $34.9 billion a year ago.

Shares of GM jumped by more than 6% during premarket trading to about $22.60 per share. The stock is down more than 40% this year.

The company burned through $903 million in cash during the quarter, a number that analysts and investors are closely tracking. Suryadevara declined to comment specifically to CNBC on its projected cash burn, but said the automaker had $33.4 billion in automotive liquidity to end the first quarter. 

GM plans to restart the majority of U.S. and Canadian production on May 18 under extensive safety measures, two months after announcing shutdowns.

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra on April 1, 2020 tours one of the company's facilities in Warren, Michigan that will produce Level 1 face masks.
GM

GM's North American operations carried the automaker with earnings of $2.2 billion, while its international operations reported a loss of $551 million. The strength in North America was led by U.S. sales of pickups and GM offering 0% financing with 84-month terms.

GM's global vehicle sales during the first quarter were down 22.4% to nearly 1.5 million from a year earlier.

Suryadevara said the company's previously announced cost-cutting plans of about $6 billion through 2020 remain "on track," including $300 million in the first quarter of this year.

Of the Detroit automakers, GM was expected to be best positioned to weather a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic. For years, the automaker has aggressively cut costs and exited unprofitable markets, including Europe, to fortify its balance sheet.

GM said last month its first-quarter U.S. vehicle sales fell 7.1% from a year ago.

GM, unlike its crosstown rival Ford Motor, did not release preliminary results for the quarter in an attempt to brace investors for its results. Ford burned through $2.2 billion in cash during the first quarter and warned of a more than $5 billion adjusted pretax loss for the second quarter.

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Automakers across the globe have been forced to conduct rolling plant shutdowns due to Covid-19. What started as a problem in China to begin the year quickly grew to a supply-base issue and then a global pandemic that shut down U.S. facilities, which remain closed.

Urged by the United Auto Workers union, GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler announced plans to temporarily close their plants due to the coronavirus on March 18.

Fiat Chrysler said Tuesday it expects to begin reopening its North American operations the week of May 18.