Why GM Should Probably Sell its Korean Division Next…

There are reports coming from Korea that GM could withdraw from the local market after posting an almost $500 million operating loss last year, a third consecutive in the red.  

Following the losses, the company announced a voluntary retirement program for employees on the business side–the fifth since 2009– leading some to speculate the two are more than strongly related.

According to Business Korea, the company has watched its exports plummet after Chevrolet went extinct in the Old World and GM pulled out of Russia at the end of 2015– exports are down some 200,000 units from 620,000 in 2013. In particular, the loss of the Chevrolet Orlando is being pointed at as the prime cause of the company’s woes.

First being discontinued in key global markets before GM pulled the plug on Orlando production at its plant in Gunsan, Korea earlier this year, opting instead to import the redesigned Chevrolet Equinox to better suit shifting tastes and regulations.

The same rumors also indicate GM Korea could close its Gunsan plant as an opening salvo to its phased production reduction. Doing local production no favors, labor costs have surged more than 50% during the last five years, coinciding with a 20% shrinkage in demand.

Exacerbating problems, GM has been at war with its local workforce since 2010 and according to the company’s most recent 10-K filing, is on the hook for more than $600 million relating to Korean labor suits.

Tying the theory into a nice little bow is the role of the Korean Development Bank.

When GM first bought Daewoo in 2002 KDB became not just a creditor, but also the company’s second-largest shareholder, agreeing to stipulations effectively tying the two companies together until October 2017. Once the term expires GM is free to sell the entirety of its Korean division to whoever wants it.

KDB has floated GM Korea close to $2 billion since the partnership began but has seen the value of its company holdings decrease violently in the last few years. A reevaluation of its shares in 2016 revealed the equity value of its 17.02% share had cratered 75% since 2014.

If there’s actually a bullet heading for GM Korea’s brain, the trigger was probably pulled by the same hand that originally saved what was then known as GMDAT during the 2009 economic massacre.

The day SAIC indirectly saved GMDAT was the day SAIC effectively killed GMDAT.

Ironically, there’s no such thing as SAIC-GM without GMDAT. The Korean arm had been used for years to help establish operations in China’s emerging market through technology transfers, expertise sharing, and production knowledge; at one point it accounted for 80% of SAIC’s products in China.

Korea and China were supposed to be a profitable pairing for the General, and they were, almost immediately; GMDAT handling design and engineering work while simultaneously ensuring all intellectual property stayed within GM, leaving SAIC responsible for manufacturing the low-cost parts needed to assemble the Complete Knockdown Kits coming from Korea.

But when GMDAT suffered $2 billion in losses on derivatives related to the value of the Korean won, the recently reborn GM needed cash for its Asian lynchpin but was forbidden from using its $50 billion in TARP funds on foreign operations. So GM reached out to SAIC, selling a 1% stake in the 50:50 joint venture with Shanghai in exchange for helping the company secure a $400-and-something-million line of credit from Chinese creditors in order to acquire all of the 162,689,343 new shares GMDAT was issuing as part of recapitalization efforts.

What Shanghai really bought for nearly half-a-billion dollars in late 2009 wasn’t 1% of a highly lucrative joint venture, but greater strategic significance within GM’s global orbit.

A new joint venture into India; establishing the SAIC-GM Sales Company in which the Chinese had control of the balance sheet; an agreement in 2010 to develop a dual-clutch transmission and a new family of small engines for global consumption; and worst of all, Gamma II started showing up in SAIC-GM developed products. SAIC was starting to grow independent.

The following year, GM upped its stake in an existing joint venture with SAIC and Wuling, feeding Baojun– an economy brand focused on smaller Chinese cities—intellectual property for zombie Daewoo platforms, while making a relative killing selling Wuling’s micro-vans as Chevrolets outside of China.

The coupe de grace, however, wouldn’t come until 2015, when GM announced not just the decision to import the made-in-China Buick Envision and Cadillac CT6 PHEV to North America, but more importantly, the decision to design and develop a global small-car architecture in China.

Post-2019, basically all GM’s B- and C-segment cars and sport utility vehicles sold outside the United States will come from the GEM program, specifically replacing mechanical platforms developed by Opel and GM Korea. 

It’s believed the program’s planned production volume hovers around the 2.3 million vehicle mark, of which more than half are earmarked to stay in China. SAIC-GM’s Pan Asia Technical Center is doing the development work for all emerging markets and has rapidly become GM’s leading engineering, manufacturing and design partner in Asia, India, South-America, and Africa.

Korea was supposed to specialize in smaller cars, developing them faster and cheaper than GM’s perpetually plagued (and now sold) Opel division in Europe; but instead 15 years later it’s struggling to find its sui generis among alongside the Shanghai money machine.

However, it’s unlikely that GM will abandon Korea altogether– for example, exterior and interior styling for the Bolt EV was led by GM’s team there and Chevy uses Korean sourced motors and batteries in the Detroit built 238-mile EV–but it could probably pull up roots on hardcore engineering and production without much ill effect on operations.

When it comes to global ops, SAIC is the future.

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