David Shepardson and Christina Rogers/ The Detroit News
Detroit — General Motors Co. CEO Dan Akerson wants the federal gas tax boosted as much as $1 a gallon to nudge consumers toward more fuel-efficient cars, and he’s confident the government will soon shed its remaining 26 percent stake in the once-bankrupt automaker.
“I actually think the government will be out this year — within the next 12 months, hopefully within the next six months,” Akerson said in a two-hour interview with The Detroit News last week.
He is grateful for the government’s rescue of GM — “I have nothing but good things to say about them” — but Akerson said the time for that relationship to end is coming because it’s wearing on GM.
“It’s kind of like your in-laws: It was a nice long weekend. We didn’t say a week,” Akerson said with a laugh.
And while he is eager to say goodbye to the government as a part owner of GM, Akerson would like to see it step up to the challenge of setting a higher gas tax, as part of a comprehensive energy policy.
A government-imposed tax hike, Akerson believes, will prompt more people to buy small cars and do more good for the environment than forcing automakers to comply with higher gas-mileage standards.
“There ought to be a discussion on the cost versus the benefits,” he said. “What we are going to do is tax production here, and that will cost us jobs.”
For the years 2017-25, federal officials are considering 3 percent to 6 percent annual fuel efficiency increases, or 47 mpg to 62 mpg. That could boost the cost of vehicles by up to $3,500.
“You know what I’d rather have them do — this will make my Republican friends puke — as gas is going to go down here now, we ought to just slap a 50-cent or a dollar tax on a gallon of gas,” Akerson said.
“People will start buying more Cruzes and they will start buying less Suburbans.”
With gas already over $4 a gallon in parts of the country, a higher gas tax is a hard sell.
Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Global Insight, said higher gas taxes in Europe did lead consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars.
But she acknowledged that’s virtually impossible to see in the United States.
“It’s career suicide for a politician to call for raising gas taxes,” Lindland said.
Akerson isn’t the first auto exec to float the idea of a gas tax to encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles. Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. has previously advocated a gas tax increase.
On Monday, a Ford spokeswoman said the company “will leave the policy decision to Congress”; in 2009, GM CEO Rick Wagoner called a higher gas tax “worthy of consideration.”
Stock boost sought
Akerson believes the Treasury’s continued ownership stake in GM — 500 million shares — is dragging down its stock price, which has fallen 23 percent this year, and closed Monday at $28.56. That’s well below the $33-per-share it fetched in November’s $23 billion initial public stock offering.
“I think that it is an overhang — to have 500 million shares sitting out there — it’s a problem,” Akerson said, adding that unrest in the Middle East and oil prices also are depressing GM’s share price. “They don’t know when (the Treasury is) going to come out. Investors hate uncertainty.”
David Whiston, an auto analyst at Morningstar, agrees that government ownership is impacting investors’ interest in GM.
“There are a lot of money managers that are waiting for the government to exit before jumping in,” Whiston said.
The Treasury, which rescued GM with a $49.5 billion bailout and once held a 61 percent majority stake, “will likely look at another (stock) sale in August, after second-quarter earnings are announced, Akerson said.
The Obama administration has made clear it is eager to exit GM — but hasn’t laid out a precise timetable.
Asked if GM is considering buying back its stock, Akerson paused for eight seconds before declining to answer directly. “But we have a lot of cash,” he added.
At the current stock price, U.S. taxpayers would be out more than $12 billion on GM’s bailout.