UPDATE 1-GM upbeat on 2024, betting on a 'resilient' US economy

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Adds GM shares rising in pre-market trading

By Joseph White

- General Motors GM.N on Tuesday reported lower pre-tax profit for the fourth quarter but gave investors an upbeat outlook for 2024 and signaled more capital could be returned to shareholders.

"Consensus is growing that the U.S. economy, the job market and auto sales will continue to be resilient," GM Chief Executive Mary Barra told investors in a letter.

GM shares rose more than 7.0% in pre-market trading ahead of a conference call with analysts.

In contrast, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk cautioned investors last week that the world's most valuable automaker expected a year of slow growth, prompting a sell-off that cut the company's market value by $80 billion.

GM is pinning hopes on strong demand for its combustion trucks and SUVs in North America, cost-cutting and increasing sales of its new generation of electric vehicles after 2023 deliveries fell short of earlier plans. GM expects overall EV sales will rise this year to 10% of the U.S. market from 7% in 2023.

GM Chief Financial Officer Paul Jacobson said in a call with reporters that the automaker expects its electric vehicle operations will begin returning variable profit by the second half the year.

In a letter to shareholders, Barra highlighted the automaker's moves to return cash to shareholders, including $12 billion in 2023 through a $10 billion share buyback and a 33% dividend increase.

GM will "continue to consistently return excess free cash flow to shareholders," the company said in a presentation.

The automaker forecast adjusted pre-tax profits in a range of $12 billion to $14 billion this year, compared to $12.4 billion reported for 2023. GM will hold capital spending roughly flat with the $10.7 billion spent last year.

The 2024 forecast translates to a range between $8.50 and $9.50 a share compared to $7.68 in 2023. The reduction in shares due to buybacks adds $1.45 a share to the 2024 forecast, GM said. That will be offset by 50 cents a share in higher taxes and interest payments.

For the fourth quarter, GM reported net income rose 5.2% to $2.1 billion on revenues of $43 billion. Adjusted pre-tax profit fell by 54% to $1.8 billion. The decrease reflected the impact of last fall's United Auto Workers' strikes, higher costs at Cruise and a $1.1 billion writedown related to EV battery cells held in inventory, the company said.

Spending at the automaker's troubled Cruise robo-taxi unit will be cut by $1 billion, the company said. Cruise halted operations after one of its self-driving cars dragged a woman down a San Francisco street.

An outside law firm's report released last week faulted Cruise management's response to the Oct. 2 incident. The U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies are investigating. GM and Cruise said they are cooperating and will make changes recommended in the law firm's report.

Barra said GM will "refocus and relaunch Cruise," but did not disclose a timetable in her letter to shareholders. Cruise lost $2.7 billion in 2023, not including $500 million in restructuring costs incurred in the fourth quarter as the unit cut staff, GM reported.

Separately, GM faces deepening challenges in China, once its largest market. Domestic Chinese automakers and Tesla are gaining share with electrified vehicles, fresh infotainment technology and aggressive price cutting. GM expects to post a loss for the current quarter, Chief Financial Officer Paul Jacobson said.

"We have a lot of inventory we are working through in first quarter" in China, he said.


(Reporting by Joe White; Editing by Stephen Coates and Christina Fincher)

((Joe.White@thomsonreuters.com;))

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