General Motors (NYSE:GM) earned its highest profit ever last year, a staggering $7.6 billion in profits on revenue of over $105 billion.
Yay for GM, right? … Well, not really.
Unfortunately, Wall Street already was expecting dramatic profits — and the automaker actually fell short. What’s more, sales overseas were very ugly, including European and South American operations that were in the red. And let’s not forget the outrage some taxpayers are feeling after a money-losing bailout of the Detroit automaker that has helped it rake in record profits.
It all adds up to a very sticky situation for this “successful” automaker in 2012.
First, let’s cover the numbers for GM: Two years after declaring bankruptcy, the company posted fiscal 2011 profits of $7.6 billion, a dramatic jump of 62% over 2010 numbers. Revenue also was up 11% to $150 billion.
Interestingly enough, despite a big focus recently on overseas sales, North America led the way for GM as sales slumped in the troubled European market and in South America. General Motors actually posted a loss for operations in both of these regions.
Though the headline profits sound great, those drags held back GM substantially in the end of last year. Fourth-quarter 2011 profits were flat at $500 million. Adjusted earnings were 40 cents per share while Wall Street had expected 42 cents.
So when you look at the details, investors actually are more disappointed than pleased with GM right now. They had expected better.
Contrast that with taxpayers, many of whom felt that Uncle Sam had absolutely no business bailing out automakers to begin with in 2009. About $82 billion of government cash was plowed into General Motors in 2009 — no small chunk of change in good times, but even more galling considering the focus on fiscal austerity right now to bridge our yawning deficit.
That’s to say nothing of the philosophical objections that many “free market” defenders have so loudly voiced.
To make matters worse, in December the former “auto czar” for the Obama administration said that the government would lose about $14 billion on the Detroit bailouts!
So even if you’re OK with the government meddling in private enterprise, taxpayers have to be OK with a money-losing bailout, too. And even if you’re OK with a money-losing government bailout, taxpayers have to be OK with record profits at the company that took Uncle Sam’s cash.
It all adds up to an untenable situation for GM’s public relations department. If you’re not successful enough, Wall Street is going to be disappointed with your lack of growth. If you’re too successful, the American taxpayers are going to be furious.
It’s hard enough for companies like Ford (NYSE:F) and Toyota (NYSE:TM) to sell cars these days amid tough competition and tight consumer spending. Though the broader stock market is up, Toyota stock is off about 8% in the past year and Ford is down almost 25%.
Throw in the uncomfortable politics of the automaker bailout, and GM has a rough road ahead in 2012.
Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the aforementioned stocks.