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TDE Middle Market: GM AGC Takes Quarterly Reporting to Task

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Published: July 31st, 2020
During a live event Thursday, June 30, at The Deal Economy: Middle Market Week, GM's Rick Hansen said he understands why companies don't want to report their earnings so frequently.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic many companies have had their issues exacerbated. One of those heightened dilemmas, according to General Motors Co. (GM) assistant general counsel Rick Hansen, appears to be the need to report financial results on a quarterly basis.

“Many companies produce products that provide services that were literally years in the making,” Hansen said during his keynote interview for The Deal Economy: Middle Market Week virtual event.

But he noted that based on his experience of working for three Fortune 20 companies during his career, investors don’t and perhaps can’t appreciate that under the current reporting system, and that executives are at something of a loss as how to deal with that.

“All three of those companies … devote significant capital, R&D and development time to products and services that may not get to customers or even be accretive to the bottom line for years,” Hansen explained. “So when you compare that dynamic with the so-called quarterly capitalism, or felt need to report results and beat expectations each quarter, I think you can understand why boards and managers feel this tension.”

That tension may be especially acute at the moment. A casual glance at the past two quarters for automakers, and the bleak outlook for the next few frames, certainly provide more reason why the general counsel of General Motors might be advocating change to a U.S. system of measuring companies’ performance that some consider short-sighted.

IHS projections indicate that second-quarter global automobile production declined 45% year over year, with North America down 69%, Europe down 62% and China up 9%, while sales were down 50% in Europe, 33% in the U.S. and 15% in China, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts John Murphy, Aileen Smith and Yarden Amsalem said in a July 22 research not to clients.

“We believe [the second quarter of 2020] is setting up to be the toughest quarter in modern history, as companies grappled with close to a zero revenue environment for a few months; and we forecast major EBIT losses and cash burn across the value chain,” the BofA team wrote.

And the team noted that nearly all 2020 outlooks have been withdrawn by the companies they cover.

“Considering still slow/choppy production ramps across major geographies, still relatively low sales levels with broader economic/consumer pressure, not to mention uncertainty of policy response and production maintenance in a ‘wave 2′ outbreak across regions, we believe companies will refrain from providing formal 2020 financial outlooks at [second quarter] reporting.”

In an other words, in a period where the future is so opaque and full of uncertainty, companies’ attempts to navigate the system of preparing the market for quarterly results has devolved into throwing their hands up, at least for the rest of the year.

In their view, evidently, worse than losing your shareholders’ money is having to apprise your shareholders of the loss or being unable to predict how much of their money you expect to lose.

Still, said GM’s Hansen: “This conversation about short-termism and long-termism is important; I think it needs to continue.” Although he conceded, “I’m not sure there is a silver bullet to resolve the inherent tension,” he insisted, “Progress can be made.”

How? One possibility is to adopt the European system of reporting results, which focuses on semi-annual and annual performance, Hansen added.

“I’m not here to debate the merits of that particular approach right now,” he opined, “but what I can say is this issue is serious enough and felt enough that real structural changes are being talked about to address these issues.”

Yet in a year where GM is expected to see its earnings come in 53%, or about $2.56 per share, below those of the previous year — and its two biggest competitors Ford Motor Co. (F) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCAU) are expected to see yearly earnings reduced by 200% and 121%, respectively — it may be hard to see the argument that doing away with quarterly results in favor of yearly reporting will do much good.

Moving the goal posts may only serve to set fans up for a bigger let-down if the team still can’t score.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article was published earlier on The Deal’s premium subscription website. For access, log in to TheDeal.com or use the form below to request a free trial.

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