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GM targets investment grade rating 'within the year'

The General Motors world headquarters is seen in downtown Detroit, Michigan May 31, 2009. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
The General Motors world headquarters is seen in downtown Detroit, Michigan May 31, 2009. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co on Wednesday said it is targeting an investment grade credit rating "within the year" as the automaker works to distance itself from the stigma of its 2009 bankruptcy.

GM disclosed the goal in slides posted online ahead of presentations by Chief Executive Dan Akerson and Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann, who are meeting with analysts at the company's test track in Milford, Michigan.

Ammann did not use the words in the slide and referred questions about when GM would achieve its goal to analysts for the rating agencies in the audience.

"We're obviously targeting an investment grade rating as soon as possible," Ammann said. "We're obviously working toward that ... and something that we hope to achieve in the near term."

Smaller U.S. rival Ford Motor Co achieved an investment grade credit rating last year, allowing it to get lower rates on borrowing and expanding the number of potential buyers for its bonds. GM would be able to do the same.

In January, Akerson said he hoped GM would achieve an investment grade credit rating in 2013. That same month, treasurer James Davlin said GM was "trending toward investment grade.

GM went public in the autumn of 2010, after its 2009 bankruptcy restructuring and $49.5 billion U.S.-taxpayer bailout. The bailout led some critics to call the company "Government Motors" and executives said the stigma has hurt sales some.

GM executives have often boasted of the Detroit company's "fortress balance sheet," but investors are more focused on a return to profitability in its money-losing European unit and the exit of the U.S. Treasury as a shareholder.

GM has said it intends to return to breakeven results in Europe by mid-decade. Treasury, which owns about 13.8 percent of GM's common shares, has said it intends to exit its position by April 2014.

Ammann also said on Wednesday that investors can expect the company's balanced approach to using its cash to continue, with the current focus on new-vehicle launches and turning around its money-losing Europe business.

"Reinvesting in the business is the single most important thing we can be doing with our cash," Ammann said. He said $8 billion in annual capital spending is the level investors should expect to see, plus or minus, on an ongoing basis.

Ammann said GM has used its cash to reinvest in the business, protect what it calls its "fortress balance sheet" and return money to shareholders. The last approach has included spending $5.5 billion last December to buy back shares from the U.S. Treasury.

Last week, Akerson said after GM's annual shareholders meeting that the company would consider dividends on its common stock and further share buybacks, but the current focus was on investing in its operations.

On Wednesday, Akerson told analysts: "When we first came out of bankruptcy, we were playing a lot of defense. Now we're playing offense."

He cited the company's luxury Cadillac brand, in which GM has been investing heavily to make it more successful globally. He called BMW , Mercedes and Audi tough competitors that offer compelling vehicles, and said Cadillac's past mistakes included ugly designs and limiting the brand to North America.

With the global luxury market growing, especially in China, Akerson said GM has about five or six years to establish Cadillac as a premium brand equal to its rivals.

Akerson also reaffirmed GM's mid-decade targets, including raising North American adjusted operating earnings profit margins to 10 percent, and mid-single-digit margins in South America and the international unit that includes China.

GM shares were down 1.3 percent at $33.49 in afternoon trading.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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