Dan Akerson sounds like the man who is running the business at GM. The wounded old company released its 2010 earnings today and the new man in the wheelhouse steered strongly into the swell of questions from equity analysts and financial and auto industry journalists.

The CEO’s first contention was that he and his team had changed the image of the company in a substantial way with two major developments: one was repaying debt; the other was launching the Volt, the extended range electric car.

The fourth quarter trading results were a profit of $510m – lower than the first three quarterly reports but a sharp contrast to the three and a half billion of loss in the final quarter last year.

“Our US market share last year was the best for three years. And although there are still some major transactions to make we are emerging from bankruptcy.” At the bottom of the next cycle, GM is going to be lean enough to break-even at worst, he reckons.

General Motors Europe is still an embarrassment. Vauxhall and Opel compete strongly for volume in Western Europe and in the UK and Germany in particular. But it is still pretty much a nil sum gain.

Despite market share gains of 1.2% and 0.2% respectively, and $300 million of cost concessions from the European labour unions, GME still failed to emerge triumphantly profitable because of lousy exchange rates. Akerson hopes to nail the break-even point or even manage some profit by the end of the current financial year.

GM’s problem – if that is the right word to define it – is that it has new product launches to pay for. The Big Three US car makers have got themselves into matching new model replacement cycles and all three had expensive fourth quarters which meant weak profit results as the year drew to a close.

The next severe headwind will be raw material costs. Oil is substantially up in reaction to Middle East political instability. Steel production is a major energy consumer. “No surprise,” said Akerson calmly. “We have been planning for that.”

GM admits that in the US it has been spending pretty freely to hold the line on market share. Mark Reuss, who is the President of GM US,  conceded that at the start of the new year the 2011 models were supported by loyalty and conquest initiatives. One of the very important battles will be putting the dumpy new Chevrolet Sonic up against the Ford Fiesta which will be no push-over.

“But dealers do not expect a consistent easy ride. I can’t say anything about what will happen to price.”

Akerson took a look at China on a visit last week. He said that they were trying to damped down demand to a maximum annual growth 10 or 15 per cent. “Long term we think that a bit of dampening is a good thing. We are all worried about inflation and the impact on city infrastructures.”

GM is fortunate that it is making more small cars just as the fuel price hike persuades marginal motorists to trade down to smaller cars. The only problem is the usual one. Small cars equal small profits at a time when GM needs big ones to afford the debt repayments.

Dan Akerson may sound like a man with his arms round the job. But the job is going to get harder before it gets easier.

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