Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK), led by fabled investor Warren Buffett, also fondly known as The Oracle of Omaha, owns 22 million General Motors Company (GM) shares, equating to a 1.6% stake in the legacy U.S. automaker.
A fundamentally robust company such as GM deserves its spot in a conglomerate's portfolio with a reputation for acquiring parts or the entirety of businesses that possess enduring competitive advantages and are likely to be aided by favorable economics in the long run.
On the back of a strong performance in the fiscal 2023 second quarter, the Detroit-headquartered auto giant has raised its guidance for 2023. The company raised its net income expectations for the fiscal from a high end of $9.9 billion to a high end of $10.7 billion. Its automotive division’s free cash flow is also expected to come between $7 billion and $9 billion, up from $5.5 billion to $7.5 billion.
In addition, GM said it is increasing cost-cutting measures through next year and now plans to cut $3 billion in expenditures compared with previous guidance of $2 billion. The financial outperformance driven by the booming traditional automotive business powered by highly profitable trucks and SUVs has enabled the company to ramp up its presence in the electric vehicle (EV) segment.
Consequently, GM reiterated that it would double EV production in the year's second half to 100,000 units. In addition to the long-awaited introduction of an electric Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck and EV versions of Chevy’s Equinox crossover and Blazer compact sport-utility vehicle, the company says it will reach 400,000 cumulative units of EV production by early 2024.
GM also anticipates that its EV business will reach profitability by 2025, with an EV production capacity of 1 million units in North America and EV revenue of roughly $50 billion.
In addition, the company is making itself future-ready by fixing supply-chain issues with measures such as a $60 million investment round in Mitra Chem, a California startup working on cheaper EV batteries. Mitra Chem aims to develop low-cost lithium iron phosphate batteries that can hold more power than current versions. If it’s successful, its batteries could appear in GM’s EVs later this decade.
GM is also developing its Ultium EV platform, which will help reduce costs and improve profitability. In addition, GM is diversifying to more potentially lucrative businesses such as Cruise, its driverless cab service, and BrightDrop, which is focused on helping businesses meet consumer demand for last-mile services.
All the above factors make GM an apparently solid bet in the automotive sector and a far cry from cash-strapped and debt-burdened EV upstarts that are struggling to keep themselves afloat amid increased borrowing cost due to sustained interest-rate hikes and EV price war that has been waged by Tesla, Inc. (TSLA).
The Flip Side
When asked about when to sell stocks, Buffett famously replied, “To break off relationships with people that I like and people that have joined me because they think it’s a permanent home, to do that simply because somebody waves a big check at me would be like selling one of my children.”
So when the legend, whose favorite holding period is forever, decides to cut his stake in GM, a business his company has owned since 2012, by almost half, it can only mean that either BRK is chronically short of funds and has been finding numerous opportunities to put them to better use or the economic characteristics of the business change in a big way.
Since BRK is sitting on a mountain of cash worth at least $147 billion, we can definitely count out the former possibility. As far as the latter is concerned, carmakers in the U.S. and Europe are once again under siege.
However, this time around, the war is on climate change, the goal is rapid decarbonization and energy transition, the battleground is smart, connected, and electric mobility solutions, and the invaders are from the other side of the Pacific, beyond the Sea of Japan.
Recently, after BYD Company Limited (BYDDY) delivered its five millionth electric vehicle, its founder Wang Chuanfu declared the “time has come for Chinese brands.” And he has good reason to be optimistic. Chinese automakers have access to its vast domestic market, abundant supplies of resources, such as rare earths, which are critical for energy transition, and a government keen on seeing its domestic brands compete globally.
China’s dominance in rare earth and other clean energy metals is back in the limelight after the recent export restriction on germanium and gallium. With the trade war between the U.S. and China intensifying amid restrictions on exports of semiconductor chips and investments in other cutting-edge technology by the former, the latter is expected to keep upping the ante.
This could hurt the prospects of Western car manufacturers as they might be compelled to deal with increased input costs on top of exchange-rate headwinds and credit crunch due to the Federal Reserve ratcheting up the benchmark borrowing cost to 5.25%-5.50% from nearly 0% in the space of 16 months.
While carbon border tax and other protective measures could provide temporary shelter for besieged Western automakers, the beneficiaries stand to lose more if the Chinese government cuts off their access to the massive domestic market on which the Chinese automakers could always fall back upon encountering turbulence overseas.
Moreover, with Vietnamese EV-maker VinFast Auto Ltd. (VFS) surpassing the market capitalization of heavyweights, such as Ford Motor Company (F) and GM, in the words of VW chief Thomas Schaefer, “The roof is on fire,” and according to former Aston Martin chief executive Andy Palmer, manufacturers in Europe and the US face a “real and present danger” from the East.
GM, first added by BRK in 2012, now constitutes merely 0.2% of the conglomerate’s portfolio of marketable securities, which in turn is just a component of its holdings, which are comprised mainly of wholly owned businesses.
Therefore, instead of being denominator blind and jumping on the Buffett bandwagon, it could be wise for investors to hold their horses and verify if Western automakers can hold their own against Oriental challengers before making an investment decision.