US Treasury to sell stake in General Motors

Total loss to be around $6.5bn.

The United States government is starting to sell off its stake in General Motors, taken as part of the bailout which saved the company in 2009. It plans to take 15 months to completely disinvest, but in the meantime, that investment is doing so well that the total value of the bailout may be far smaller than was previously thought.

When the government intervened in July 2009, it spent $49.5bn to purchase most of the assets and trademarks of "old GM", through an intermediary called NGMCO Inc, ensuring the continued operation of most of the company's plants and continued employment of most of its workers.

Since then, the Treasury has already earned back $28.7bn of its money from "repayments, sales of stock, dividends, interest, and other income". And with its first move towards disinvestment, it plans to sell 200m of its 500.1m shares in GM back to the company itself, for $27.50 a share, raising a further $5.5bn. So at the end of that sale, the government will be left with $14.8bn still in GM and a further 300.1m shares.

It's obviously unlikely that the state will make back its entire stake; Felix Salmon estimates that the price would need to rise to $50 a share, considerably higher than the all-time peak of $39.48 early last year. But it is possible; and it's definitely the case that the state will lose a lot less than the $50bn figure which was causing such consternation when the bailout was announced.

Such is always the case with investment programmes like this one, though. The headline figure gets reported, and debated over, as though it were just the same as any other spending; the fact that that money comes back to the Treasury, either in actual cash, as with this sort of investment, or in kind, as with most infrastructure investments, is buried in the discussion.

If the government manages to sell the its remaining shares at today's face value, it will end up losing around $6.5bn from its four-year investment in GM. If the share price rises, that number will fall lower still. At the time, there was obvious uncertainty about how successful the bailout would be; and there was always a chance that the government would lose its whole stake.

But there was also a chance that, as with its similar stake in insurance company AIG, it would make a profit. And absent either of those, a $6.5bn programme which saved a company employing 202,000 people isn't that bad. But as Matt Yglesias points out, the problem may be that those jobs are, in the long run, not saveable at all:

The total collapse of the Michigan-centered auto industry would, for better or for worse, have opened up new market opportunities for other automaker with production facilities located elsewhere… On the other hand, either the total collapse of the midwestern auto industry or a huge wave of bank failures would have produced massive dislocations in people's lives and a lot of misery on the road to renewal. Those are the questions to think about, not how much money was made or lost in this or that investment.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit