General Motors (NYSE:GM) stock opened for trade Oct. 10 at $34.45 — just 75 cents above its 2019 low of $33.70 per share. Since the United Automobile Workers strike began Sept. 15, shares are down almost 11%. Half that loss came after Oct. 1, when the company began laying off workers at its Mexican factories over a shortage of parts. More were laid off Oct. 9.
After talks to end the walkout turned negative, the strike transformed from a hiccup into an existential threat. This threat poses risks both to GM and the United Auto Workers union. The UAW has yet to organize the nation’s foreign-owned plants — even Volkswagen (OTCMKTS:VLKAY), where workers have voted twice on the matter in five years.
The question for investors is whether to grab GM and the strike discount or stand off the sidelines.
Why Buy GM?
GM has been dirt cheap ever since it began trading again in 2010. It opened that November at $35 per share.
GM, Ford Motor (NYSE:F) and Fiat Chrysler (NYSE:FCAU) have been so cheap so long you can’t call them undervalued. This is their value. GM currently sells at a trailing price-to-earnings ratio of 5.5. Its 38 cent per share dividend represents a yield of 4.5%. The other two U.S. automakers sport even higher yields. It’s clear that investors don’t believe in the car business.
Or, they just don’t believe in today’s car business. Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), which offers no dividend, is worth $43.7 billion. That’s just $6 billion less than GM stock.
What investors know is that electric cars and autonomous vehicles are the future. What investors know is that Detroit’s lineup of SUVs and pick-up trucks has a limited shelf life. U.S. auto sales peaked in 2015 at an annual rate of 18.2 million. The most recent report, for September, shows sales almost 500,000 below that figure.
Detroit vs. Silicon Valley
For the last several years Detroit has been in a tug of war with Silicon Valley over which side will direct the autonomous revolution. GM has joined the Autonomous Vehicle Computing Consortium, hoping to set standards for self-driving cars. It has its own self-driving unit, Cruise, and is working with other car companies.
Meanwhile, Alphabet’s (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) Waymo unit is telling its Phoenix ride-hailing customers to soon expect Waymo cars without drivers. It is putting a fleet of self-driving cars into Los Angeles to gather real-time location data.
Morgan Stanley recently cut Waymo’s valuation 40%, to $105 billion. That’s still more than twice GM’s valuation.
Cars Aren’t Going to Be Cars
Gas-powered cars are complicated. They have engines and transmissions with many parts that can break. Electric vehicles have always been simpler, more reliable and less expensive to operate. This has been true since the 1890s. Gas-powered cars came to dominate the market because gasoline’s supply infrastructure made the fuel cheap while electricity was still just barely keeping the lights on.
Now that the electrical system is mature and seeking new markets as efficiency presses down on demand, the equation is shifting. GM knows it. Tesla has taken a big bite of the luxury market. Standards like Volkswagen’s MEB, already being accepted by Ford, promise to make electrics cheaper as well.
The Bottom Line on GM Stock
Regardless of the merits of this strike, GM and its union are fighting over scraps.
Electric vehicles are the future. Self-driving cars are the future. The industry’s entire business model is going to change utterly over the next decade. That’s why GM, and the other U.S. automakers, are so cheap.
This isn’t just an existential crisis. This is the future telling the past what time it is. Both sides are going to lose here. Don’t join them with your money.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of the historical mystery romance The Reluctant Detective Travels in Time, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned no shares in companies mentioned in this story.