Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche


Is Warren Buffett right about General Motors?

Of all the investments in Berkshire Hathaway’s (NYSE: BRK.B) current portfolio, GM is the most surprising. Other automakers offer more value attributes and better deals.

General Motors (NYSE: GM) is not dramatically underpriced like Ford (NYSE: F) and Fiat Chrysler (NYSE: FCAU). It also lacks serious exposure to the growing luxury vehicle market like Ferrari (NYSE: RACE) and Tata Motors (NYSE: TTM).

More tellingly, GM lacks the cash that Ford has his. General Motors reported $21.246 billion in cash and short-term investments on September 30, 2017. That was respectable but well below the $38.081 billion in cash and short-term investments Ford reported on the same day.

Is Ford a Better Investment than GM?

Judging by cash and share value Ford seems the better value investment. Ford shares were trading at $13.14 on 8 January 2018, while GM was trading at $44.22 on the same day.

More importantly, Ford reported some revenue growth 1.418% for 3rd quarter 2017, while GM’s revenues were falling. General Motors’ revenues shrank by 13.58% during the 3rd according to Stockrow data.

Ford has a growing business while GM seems to be struggling with serious sales shrinkage. Ford’s sales grew by 6.7% in November 2017, while General Motors’ sales fell by 2.9% during the same month, The Detroit Free-Press reported.

What does Buffett see in General Motors that we do not?

The basic numbers would indicate that Ford is the value in American automakers? So what does Uncle Warren see in General Motors anyway?

The most likely scenario is that Buffett likes the vast amount of industrial infrastructure at General Motors. Such infrastructure will be the key to making money in the auto industry in the near future, former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz predicted in a provocative Automotive News op-ed in November.

Lutz believes that the future of car companies is supplying “hardware” to transportation providers like Uber, Lyft, and car-rental companies. He compared the future auto-industry to the smartphone business; in which the bulk of profit goes to the app and software providers and the designers – not the handset makers.

General Motors is in a great position to provide that hardware because of its manufacturing infrastructure. GM currently operates 12 vehicle-assembly plants, 12 powertrain factories, six metal centers, four component-holding centers, one tooling center, and one battery assembly center in the United States alone. There are also seven factories in China, four plants in Mexico, and four assembly facilities in Canada.

Fleets will dominate the Auto Business

General Motors is well-positioned to take advantage of new automotive realities. A major one will be fleet sales. Lutz believes fleets will dominate the auto industry and force the widespread adoption of self-driving cars in the future.

“These fleet owners will account for several million vehicles a year,” Lutz wrote. “Every few months they will order 100,000 low-end modules, 100,000 medium and 100,000 high-end. The low-cost provider that delivers the specification will get the business.”

That sounds like an auto business tailor-made for General Motors; which specializes in low-cost generic vehicles and fleet sales. Anybody who drives in the US already knows GM owns a huge piece of the fleet business and that business is poised to explode.

Cars on Tap is the Future and GM is there

Much of the fleet business will consist of rental and ridesharing vehicles for companies like Lyft, Didi, Uber, and Avis-Budget (NYSE: CAR). The stigma against driving a Chevy that many Americans have will not affect the people who order those vehicles. Those riders just want a car that shows up fast, and gets them to their destination.

General Motors itself recognizes these realities; it has launched a short-term rental service called Maven. Maven is an app-based company that boasts it can provide: “Cars to Fit Your Every Need.” If you need a van, a minivan, a pickup truck, an SUV, an econobox, or a station wagon you can order it at the touch of an app.

The future is cars on tap or cars on the app and General Motors is there. Some of Maven’s marketing claims include; “Free from cost of ownership,” “never pay for gas and insurance,” and “Don’t worry about vehicle maintenance.” Anybody who has ever worried about covering the cost of a car insurance payment, new tires, or a tank of gas will find those claims appealing.

Meet Maven GM’s rent a Fleet Service

Maven can make those claims because it provides cars on an hourly basis which will be a popular notion. A soccer mom that just needs a minivan for an hour a week to take the team to her son’s game can find one there. So can a guy who needs a pickup truck to help his buddy move across town.

The idea is not new; Zipcar has been doing it for a well over a decade, but GM has the resources to roll it out on a large scale. The company is using New York City, home of overpriced parking, unreliable subway service, and congested streets as a beta-testing laboratory.

A potentially disruptive and popular feature of Maven is a very low-tech one, a garage with a valet. The valet cleans the cars, checks the tires, fills the gas tanks, and brings them out to drivers. Future solutions might be a valet that drops the Maven vehicle off at the customer’s house or a self-driving car that picks the driver up.

General Motors wants to be Everybody’s Motor Pool

Maven is also available to business customers, making it look like a “prototype” for a rent-a-fleet company. GM wants to be everybody’s motor pool in the future. A motor pool is where a fleet of vehicles is based. If you need a car just touch the Maven app and it will be provided.

This will not satisfy the gearheads but most of will appreciate the convenience. The car you need will be delivered to you right away and taken away when the trip is over. No need for parking, garage, insurance, tires, gas, maintenance, or even a car wash.

Need a Cadillac to impress your sales client, a Corvette for a drive in the country, a van to move your furniture, a pickup truck to haul some fertilizer home from Lowe’s, a new car for your hot date, no sweat GM has you covered.

Want to make some extra cash delivering pizzas or driving rideshare but don’t have a car, General Motors has that covered too. Maven Gig provides vehicles to freelance drivers working for rideshare and deliver services. It is in available in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, and it is working with some big-name providers including GrubHub (NYSE: GRUB), the grocer Instacart, and the delivery solution Roadie.

A Value Investment for the 21st Century

It looks as if Uncle Warren is right about General Motors the company is positioning itself to be a 21st Century value investment. GM is turning into a service provider that will be everywhere, offering something that everybody needs transportation.

That sounds like a classic Buffett value investment. Those who want to cash in on the future of driving would be well advised to check out General Motors. Warren Buffett seems to be just as knowledgeable about the 21st Century as he was the 20th.