Is anyone else surprised by the move at GM to join the United States Climate Action Partnership? This is GM, you know: one of the Big Three, long time bed fellow of oil producing companies, committed to improving emission quality at rates no greater than minimum EPA standards. Yes, we’re talking about the same GM. Whether or not there is credence to reports of 100 mpg carburetors or 200 mpg fuel injectors, the fact is that GM—like all major automobile manufacturers—has played a key role in keeping disruptive technology from making it to market. Between Big Oil and Big Auto, there just hasn’t been room for anybody else.
So why is GM suddenly turning green? Is $10.5 billion in declining revenues (FY05; with another $1 billion decline in FY06) a big enough reason? There is no renewed love of the earth driving the change. Rather, GM is surveying the unfriendly carbon-producing landscape and sees one of two options: stay the same or change. We all can imagine what staying the same will mean: continued plummet of revenues this year (as Toyota continues to dominate the market), and the next, and the next—and so on, until GM bonds are worth less than a well-used ‘72 Yugo.
But what about change? Not a chance in a thousand years of fossilization can we expect to see real change, like the mass production of hybrid battery & synthetic fuel vehicles populating the GM lots. Despite all the hype, the cost of producing synthetic fuel is still significantly higher than the value of the product itself ($1.75 per gallon, vs. .95¢ per gallon for gasoline). But GM knows there is still a lot of money to be made on the venture. Enter Uncle Sam with tax breaks for businesses in the business of turning things that run on black (oil) to green (biofuels). And green in the tank is green in the pocket for companies who look poised to birth the next big, environment saving product (whether or not they ever do seems to be irrelevant).
GM’s move to join the Climate Action Partnership is a hedging of bets, ahead of competitors Chrysler and Ford, against the potential downfall of a change in government next year. If republicans win, GM can rely on its old methods: cuts in business taxes driven by corporate advocacy groups. But if democrats fill the oval office, you can be sure GM isn’t going to be shy about broadcasting its trailblazing…er, trailsaving steps. I can hear it now: “After all, Mrs. President, we choose to join the Climate Action Partnership last year when those other guys (read Ford and Chrysler) we just about turning a buck.” (Stick out hand here to receive large tax breaks and federal aid).
What this means for stock holders—real and potential—is not much. GM is still burning through money faster than a hybrid can burn though the fuel produced by 10 acres of corn. So, go ahead GM. Hedge your best. While you’re at it, change your name to Green-M. Neither move will put you into better position against Toyota who, as it stands, just keeps making long-lasting vehicles: standard and hybrid. And if joining the Climate Action Partnership is what you call a 10-year business plan…well, let’s just say that—green or black—2007 promises to finish in the red.