DETROIT – General Motors Co. has repaid the $8.1 billion in loans it got from the U.S. and Canadian governments, a move its CEO says is a sign automaker is on the road to recovery.
GM CEO Whitacre announced the loan paybacks Wednesday at the company's Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kan., where he said GM is investing $257 million in that factory and the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, both of which will build the next generation of the midsize Chevrolet Malibu.
GM got a total of $52 billion from the U.S. government and $9.5 billion from the Canadian and Ontario governments as it went through bankruptcy protection last year. At first the entire amount of U.S. aid was considered a loan as the government tried to keep GM from going under and pulling the fragile economy into a depression.
But during bankruptcy, the U.S. government reduced the loan portion to $6.7 billion and converted the rest to company stock, while the Canadian governments held $1.4 billion in loans.
The automaker hopes to repay the remaining $45.3 billion to the U.S. government and $8.1 billion to Canada via a public stock offering, perhaps later this year. The U.S. government now owns 61 percent of the company and Canada owns roughly 12 percent.
The U.S. payments, made Tuesday, came five years ahead of schedule, and Whitacre said they are a sign that the automaker is on its way toward reducing government ownership of the company. The payments on the Canadian loans were also made Tuesday.
"Nobody was happy that GM needed government loans — not the governments, not the taxpayers and, quite frankly, not the company," Whitacre wrote in an op-ed article that appeared on The Wall Street Journal's Web site Tuesday night. "We believe we can best thank the citizens of the U.S. and Canada by making sure that their investments are hard at work every day, building high quality, fuel-efficient vehicles."
The factory investments in Kansas and Michigan will not create any new jobs, but will preserve jobs at both plants. The Kansas plant, which employs 3,869 workers, also builds the midsize Buick LaCrosse luxury sedan. The Detroit-Hamtramck plant, which has 1,048 employees, now builds the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne large sedans and is gearing up to make the Chevrolet Volt rechargeable electric car.
During the financial crisis that led to GM filing for bankruptcy protection last year, the automaker closed 14 factories and shed more than 65,000 blue-collar jobs in the U.S. through buyouts, early retirement offers and layoffs. The company now employs about 40,000 hourly workers in the U.S.
Preserving jobs at the two GM plants won't help the nation's unemployment picture, but it won't make it worse.
Employers nationwide in March added 162,000 jobs, the most in three years. But the pace of the economic recovery and job creation won't be robust enough to quickly drive down the unemployment rate. It's been stuck at 9.7 percent for three months, close to its highest levels since the 1980s.
GM had made about $2 billion in loan payments to the U.S. government and $384 million to Canada in December and March, and had promised to repay the full loans by June. But company officials have said its cash flow, mainly from the sales of newer models, has been better than expected, allowing it to make the remaining $5.8 billion in payments early.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in a statement that he's confident GM is on a path toward viability.
"This continued progress is a positive sign for our auto investment â€” not only more funds recovered for the taxpayer, but also countless jobs saved and the successful stabilization of a vital industry for our country," he said in a statement.
The Treasury Department said total repayments under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, now stand at $186 billion, with less than $200 billion in bailout money outstanding.
The government still has $2.1 billion worth of GM preferred stock, plus its 61 percent share of common equity, the statement said.
Repaying the loans has been a top priority for Whitacre.
GM officials say the company's public stock offering will take place when the markets and the company are ready. They will not predict how much of the remaining government debt will be repaid from the stock offering, but said it likely will take years for the governments to divest themselves fully.
The stock offering hinges on GM posting a profit, which Whitacre has said could come this year. GM lost $3.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2009 on revenues of $32.3 billion.
After the event at the Kansas City plant on Wednesday, Whitacre is scheduled to fly to Washington, where he will meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers.