Detroit automakers finally seem to be shaking off what might be called “Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome.” For much of the past decade, as the late comedian liked to say of himself, they “get no respect” from Wall Street investors much more likely to reward automotive startups like Tesla.
Though they are clearly lagging that California EV automaker, General Motors and Ford have experienced a sharp surge in their share prices since the beginning of the year as investors have begun to factor in the accelerating electrification efforts of the two manufacturers.
In the wake of a well-reviewed presentation by General Motors CEO Mary Barra at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said “What they are doing may end up being one of the most profound strategic turnarounds, not just in the auto industry, but in business,” during a CNBC interview.
But whether GM, never mind Ford, can catch up to Tesla, with its stock price pushing as high as $900 in recent weeks – and its market valuation running north of $800 billion – is far from certain. While the two Detroit automakers have plans to unleash a wave of new battery cars, they have a long way to go to match the sales of the market leader. And they have numerous legacy issues that could hold them back, including large union workforces, as well as their franchised dealer networks.
Since the beginning of the month, GM shares have surged as high as $56.97. That’s the highest the automaker has seen during the decade since it emerged from bankruptcy. Its previous peak of $45.88 was set back in October 2017.
Ford shares are currently running just north of $11 a share — down from a 52-week high of $12.15, but the best number the automaker has seen January 2018 when it briefly topped $13 a share. During the past year, Ford has slumped as low as $3.96, hitting its low point just after the start of the new year, as was the case with GM.
The timing of the ongoing surge was far from accidental – or unintentional. GM CEO Barra has spent much of her six-year tenure trying to build credibility for the automaker and, during the last several years, for its push to become a leader in the development of both autonomous and electrified vehicles.
Late last year, GM announced it was accelerating a push that was to bring “20-plus” battery-electric vehicles to global showrooms by 2023. The plan now calls for 30 BEVs by mid-decade, the company ramping up spending for EVs and AVs to $27 billion by 2025. Meanwhile, BrightDrop is focused on providing electric trucks and other equipment for delivery services.
GM has also benefited from the news that Microsoft joined in on a new, $2 billion funding drive for its Cruise autonomous vehicle subsidiary – which recently won approval to begin testing fully driverless vehicles on California public roads. Bank of America analysts now “conservatively” estimate Cruise alone could be worth $53 billion if spun off. That’s a significant number considering investors currently give GM, in its entirety, a $75 billion market cap.
As for Ford, investors remain more skeptical, especially in light of the turmoil that saw yet another boardroom shakeup last year. But there are few who question new CEO Jim Farley’s commitment to EVs and AVs. And there are strong signs that Ford’s first long-range BEV, the Mustang Mach-E will be a hit – something underscored by it winning the coveted trophy for North American Utility Vehicle of the Year this month.
Ford still has a lot to prove and will be facing a $2.5 billion hit for its decision to shutter its Brazilian manufacturing operations, and another $610 million charge for the latest Takata airbag recall. Nonetheless, it was buoyed by a Deutsche Bank report forecasting improved earnings.
For his part, J.P. Morgan analyst Ryan Brinkman told investors, “Ford is showing more and more signs of becoming a credible contender in battery-electric vehicles.”
Of course, GM and Ford aren’t the only automakers who had “been left behind” by Wall Street, said Joe Phillippi, founder and chief analyst with AutoTrends Consulting. Traditional manufacturers “were late to the party” compared to companies like Tesla and other EV-focused startups. But “now that they’ve made a real commitment,” Phillippi added in a telephone interview, “it’s dawning on investors that these are real companies who are getting into the business.”
If anything, GM and Ford – as well as other traditional manufacturers like Volkswagen, Toyota and Daimler – have the cash wherewithal to invest heavily in electric and autonomous vehicles. The question is whether they can overcome the early lead built up by Tesla, especially when it comes to that brand’s unique cache.
There are other challenges, as well. Detroit automakers have heavily unionized workforces that not only add to production costs but can also impact productivity programs.
Then, said Phillippi, traditional manufacturers also have to deal with existing retail networks. Tesla operates its own factory-owned channel, something it boasts gives it more flexibility while lowering marketing costs. GM’s Cadillac division recently began buying out dealers who declined to commit to investments needed to handle the brand’s upcoming EV models.
But having franchisees isn’t necessarily all bad, contended Steve Majoros, the marketing chief for the Chevrolet brand, during a recent media webinar. It provides for broader market coverage on both the sales and service side. Tesla still doesn’t operate in a number of states, like Michigan, where factory-owned stores are outlawed. And, even in states where it does run stores, there can be large gaps in geographic coverage requiring customers to have vehicles hauled on flatbeds for even minor repairs.
How much higher GM and Ford stock will go is far from certain, but Morgan Stanely’s Jonas is clearly upbeat – even if the message hasn’t reach everyone yet. “Our clients still don’t quite believe it yet, and in our opinion,” he said, but “the best is yet to come.”