Detroit, Michigan — If it weren't for the recalls, 2014 would have been a stellar year for General Motors.
Even with $2.8 billion in pretax costs to fix more than 30 million recalled vehicles and $400 million set aside for death and injury claims, GM still managed to turn a $2.8 billion profit.
That's because otherwise, most of the stars lined up well for the Detroit automaker. Gas prices dropped more than a buck to $2.26 per gallon. The U.S. economy gained steam. Cheap credit was abundant.
Combined, they sent buyers to GM's newly redesigned and lucrative pickup trucks and large SUVs in North America, the company's most profitable market. At the same time, chief competitor Ford's truck plants were down much of the year while it switched to a new pickup with a risky aluminum body. Sales in China grew faster than the market. Worldwide sales were up 2 percent to 9.9 million vehicles, a record.
Things were so good, GM decided to increase its dividend next quarter by 20 percent, to 36 cents, pending board approval.
Yes, there was trouble in Europe, Russia and Latin America, but by and large, GM had a good year.
Its shares rose 4 percent in premarket trading Wednesday.
The company's full-year earnings amounted to $1.65 per share. Net income was down 26 percent from $3.8 billion in 2013. But excluding one-time items, GM made $3.05, beating Wall Street's expectation of $2.64, according to FactSet. Revenue rose slightly to $155.9 billion, beating the analysts' prediction of $150.6 billion.
"We're really going to carry the positive momentum into 2015," Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens said. "We expect both aggregate earnings and profit margins to improve in all of our automotive regions."
Stevens said the company's core earnings performance for the year was strong when recall costs are excluded. The company earned $6.5 billion before interest and taxes last year, and that would have been more than $9 billion without the recalls, he said. Recalls, he said, cost the company about $1.10 per share.
In North America, GM's most profitable region, the company made $6.6 billion before taxes, 11 percent below 2013. That will bring record profit-sharing checks of about $9,000 for each of the company's 48,400 eligible union factory workers later this month. To reward employees, GM backed out recall costs and measured the profit-sharing based on core earnings.
Stevens said the company is on its way to achieving a 10 percent North American profit margin next year. Last year the margin, which is the percentage of revenue a company gets to keep, was 6.5 percent. But without recalls, it was 8.9 percent, an improvement over 7.8 percent in 2013.
The company's pretax loss in Europe widened almost 60 percent for the year to $1.37 billion, mainly on economic problems in Russia. International operations including Asia fell 3 percent for the year to $1.2 billion. South America reported a full year loss of $180 million, compared with a $327 million profit in 2013. Stevens said the company is still predicting a pretax profit in Europe in 2016.
In the fourth quarter, GM reported net profit of $1.1 billion, or 66 cents per share. That's 21 percent better than a year ago. Excluding $300 million of negative one-time items, GM made $1.19, beating analysts' estimates of 83 cents per share.
The same factors that helped GM overcome the year of the recall remain present today, so the company needs to perform this year, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a note to investors. "We may be looking at as close to an alignment of forces in GM's favor as we're going to see this decade," he wrote.
Still, there are uncertainties. Recall costs could mount as claims from those killed or injured in crashes caused by defective ignition switches grow. Sales in Europe and Russia could falter, and Japanese competitors will roll out attractive new products. And cheap leases and financing for six years or longer have likely pulled sales ahead from future months, according to Jonas. The pre-bankrutpcy GM would often beat analysts' forecasts during times when credit was easy, he wrote.
Investors liked GM's results. Shares rose $1.40, or 4.1 percent, to $35.35 shortly before the markets opened. They have traded from $28.82 to $38.15 in the past year.