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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.