All eyes will be on General Motors a little later today to see if a year of pain has translated into the first quarterly profit since 2007.

[It did – later report here – ed]

Signs are it might have. New ex-Microsoft CFO Chris Liddell last month hinted that the finances looked good and there was at least a chance of operating profits this year while chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre has told employees by memo that February and March saw good operating results. Meanwhile, former Obama administration autos task force supremo Steve Rattner only last week suggested that GM might report a first quarter in black ink.

All this would come after a year in which Whiteacre has constantly shuffled the management pack with one hapless recruit lasting only nine days, dealers have been axed (not without legal and congressional pushback), brands shuttered or sold (RIP Saturn, Hummer, Pontiac; good luck with Saab, Spyker) and more job cuts. Now it’s time for some results.

Between its emergence from bankruptcy on 10 July and the end of 2009, GM lost US$4.3 bn, the Detroit Free Press noted today. On an operating basis, GM was $600m short of break-even during the fourth quarter, Liddell was quoted as saying.

GM sales are, however, up with a new Buick model doing particularly well, and GM late last month said it made its final $5.8bn in loan payments to the US Treasury and Canadian governments though cynices said taxpayers really would not get paid back until GM goes public and the governments’ stakes can be sold off.

Healthy Q1 profits at Ford and Toyota – despite the recall difficulties at the latter – give cause for hope at GM but neither is under a year out of bankruptcy protection.

IHS Global Insight analyst Rebecca Lindland told the Detroit Free Press positive news today could help boost company morale.

“At the upper echelon, there’s been a lot of shifts and a lot of changes and a lot of instability and that can make people at the lower tiers pretty afraid,” she said.

Positive Q1 developments included China sales up 67.9% and US sales up 14% to the end of April along with plans to boost production of some strong selling vehicle models.

GM built about 668,000 vehicles in North America during the first quarter, up from
371,000 a year earlier.

According to the Detroit paper, Barclays Capital analyst Brian Johnson has estimated that GM will boost production in the second quarter by 78% to 700,000 vehicles, compared with the depressed volumes a year ago as GM went through bankruptcy.

Another industry analyst, Joseph Phillippi, said GM should be able to post positive results for the first quarter, given the company’s reduced cost structure and stepped-up production during the first few months of the year.

Here’s hoping.