GM CEO sees European losses continuing for 1-2 years

SAN FRANCISCO Thu Mar 8, 2012 8:58am EST

General Motors Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson listens to a question from the media during opening ceremonies of the GM - UAW Contract Negotiations at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan July 27, 2011. Akerson has weighed in strongly on the future of its Opel business, saying the European unit was not for sale. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

General Motors Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson listens to a question from the media during opening ceremonies of the GM - UAW Contract Negotiations at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan July 27, 2011. Akerson has weighed in strongly on the future of its Opel business, saying the European unit was not for sale.

Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - General Motors Co chief executive Dan Akerson said it may be two years before its European division is back in profit as the continent sheds over-capacity the same way the U.S. industry had to over the past half decade.

The world's largest automaker has lost money in Europe for the last 12 years.

"I think it'll be a good year or two before we can achieve profitability in Europe again," Akerson said at an on-stage interview conducted in San Francisco on Wednesday night.

European sales had been recovering before the continent became gripped by fears of debt defaults in the middle of last year, Akerson said at the Commonwealth Club of California, a non-profit public affairs forum.

"People stopped buying. I can see it every day in the sales reports," said Akerson, who was born in California and studied at the London School of Economics.

Industry-wide, Akerson believed there were between seven and 10 excess car plants in Europe and other executives estimate there is 20 percent over-capacity there.

He emphasized that a deal with France's PSA Peugeot Citroen announced last week was merely an alliance and that each carmaker had its own problems to solve.

GM announced last week that it would halt production of the Chevy Volt plug-in electric car for five weeks and temporarily lay off 1,300 U.S. workers.

But Akerson, arguing that a two-week production shutdown last year for its popular Cruze compact car did not generate as much concern, dismissed the worries surrounding the Volt as political.

"Sometimes I feel bad for President Obama," Akerson told reporters, saying the Volt was in the works long before Obama's election, yet it was seen as his car due to the government's 27 percent stake in GM after its bailout. "It's not the Obama car."

Akerson had said earlier that, while it was not up to him, his ideal outcome would be for the government to, for example, sell off the stake steadily over 10 quarters because he believed uncertainty about it was weighing on GM's share price.

Obama's re-election campaign often touts the auto sector bailout as one of the Democrat's major accomplishments as president, seeking to draw a contrast with Republican White House contender Mitt Romney, who opposed it.

The Obama administration has backed more than $2 billion to support the development of battery systems designed for electric cars including the $40,000 Volt. Volt owners are also eligible for a $7,500 tax credit for buying the fuel-efficient vehicle.

GM is adjusting the Volt to meet strict California requirements for a further $1,500 state rebate and allow drivers to use special carpool lanes in the state, where a fourth of the 7,671 Volts GM sold in 2011 were purchased.

(Reporting by Braden Reddall in San Francisco; Editing by Matt Driskill)

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