Well, it would seem I’m off to a slow start in InvestorPlace’s Best Stocks for 2017 contest. As I’m writing this, my pick — General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) — in seventh place with a return of exactly zero for the year. That’s a poor showing for GM stock, given that the S&P 500 is up over 5% for the year while the current leader in this year’s contest — Adam Johnson’s pick Zynerba Pharmaceuticals Inc (NASDAQ:ZYNE) — is up a whopping 36%.
That’s OK. I’ve been here before. Around this time last year, I was in dead last place and down an embarrassing 70%. And yet I finished the year just fine, thank you very much.
I can’t promise that General Motors will mount an equally impressive comeback. But I can promise you this. It’s still very early in 2017, and a lot will happen between now and Dec. 31.
How GM Stock is Faring
So, why is GM’s engine sputtering? After all, American auto sales are near post-crisis highs. And 2016 was actually a record year.
Looking ahead, lower crude oil prices — and a new presidential administration that is friendlier to fossil fuels — promise to tilt General Motors’ sales mix towards its more profitable (yet far more gas-thirsty) light trucks and SUVs.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and General Motors revenues have been trending steeply higher for the past two years. Seriously, what is there not to like here?
Wall Street fears that today’s high auto sales are unsustainable, driven in part by low interest rates that encouraged irresponsible borrowing by consumers who have bitten off more than they can chew.
And there is certainly some truth to this. In 2016, a record number of U.S. vehicle trade-ins — nearly a third — had outstanding loans larger than the value of the car, meaning that the balance from the old car gets rolled into the loan for the new car. It’s not surprising that the kind of person that would tack auto debt on top of auto debt would also have a hard time paying the bills, and auto loan delinquencies are rising, particularly among subprime borrowers.
Furthermore, both GM stock and Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) have told their investors to expect softer sales growth this year.
I get all of that. I really do. But considering that GM and Ford trade for 6 and 7 times their respective expected 2017 earnings, you can’t say that there is a lot of optimism built into current prices. In fact, those are close to “going out of business” prices.
At today’s valuations, automakers don’t actually need to have a banner year. Anything short of disaster should send share prices sharply higher.
Aging Cars Benefit General Motors
I also expect auto sales to be a lot less cyclical this cycle. As I mentioned in my original write-up on GM stock, the age of the average car on American roads is now 12 years. That’s not the average age before a car goes to the scrap heap … it’s the age of cars still on the road.
The shock of the 2008 crisis and aftermath left a gaping hole in auto sales that the strong performance of recent years has only partially filled. Americans have been holding on to their cars for longer, and frankly, that trend can’t last forever. Demand for replacement vehicles should prevent the next downturn in auto sales from being as severe as the last few downturns.
But let’s change gears for a moment and return to GM’s valuation. I mentioned that General Motors trades at a ridiculous 6 times expected 2017 earnings, but that’s not the only metric by which it looks ridiculously cheap. GM stock also trades for 0.32 times sales and at a dividend yield of 4.3%.
And speaking of the dividend, GM has done a solid job of raising it ever since it was reinstated in 2014.
General Motors has raised its quarterly dividend from 30 cents per share to 38 cents. And given that GM only pays out 25% of its profits as dividends, there is still room for growth, even if the bears are correct and GM hits a rough patch.
Will GM take the crown in this year’s Best Stocks contest? Well, that’s for Mr. Market to decide. But I’m very content to hold GM and collect the high and growing dividend for months or even years while waiting for Mr. Market to come around.
Charles Sizemore, CFA is the principal of Sizemore Capital. As of this writing he was long GM.