Profiting From a Bankrupt GM

Chrysler's taken the plunge. General Motors (NYSE: GM) has mounted the diving board. And the question now is, who's best placed to profit from a GM bankruptcy -- or more generally, the seismic changes taking place in the auto market?

The usual suspects

Some would suggest it's the Big Three Japanese automakers who will thrive from Detroit's demise. Toyota (NYSE: TM) has already won the title of "world's biggest automaker." Meanwhile, Nissan (Nasdaq: NSANY) and Honda (NYSE: HMC) should both benefit from weaker U.S. competition.

From my point of view, though, "none of the above" is the biggest potential profiteer from Detroit's implosion. To find the real winner, you need to train your binoculars not east, but north. To Canada. To Magna International (NYSE: MGA).

And now, for something completely different

Nearly four years ago, I laid out a roadmap for how North America's car industry might rise from the ashes of Detroit. Key to the plan was the arising of a "new" automaker -- one unburdened by the exorbitant legacy costs of the old Big Three automakers, having vast experience in the auto industry, capable of building its own cars, and most important of all, possessing that rarest of auto industry skills: Earning a profit.

GM? No, MM. Magna Motors

All of which fits Magna International to a "T." Over more than a century in business, Magna has proven itself arguably the best auto parts company on the planet. It sells parts to all of the automakers named above, and a few dozen more that aren't. And when I say "auto parts," I'm not even doing Magna justice. This company goes beyond churning out brake pads and steering wheels, folks. It builds whole cars.

In March, we learned that Ford (NYSE: F) has hired Magna to build the guts for its first-ever electric car -- a Focus spinoff that will travel 100 miles without drinking a drop of petrol, expected to hit dealer lots in 2011. Nor is Ford the only "carmaker" outsourcing its primary function to Magna.

Magna's Chief Technical Officer for the Americas, Ted Robertson, says the Focus's guts are: "a generic system we were designing so it could be put into anybody's vehicle." (Much like how Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) puts its Sync system in Fords today, but has the right to sell it also to other companies any time they're ready.) Thus, Magna threatens to turn the rest of the industry into essentially a big marketing and distribution shop, while Magna makes the actual cars -- and much of the profits.

And that's just the start

Two years ago, Magna tried to become a "carmaker" in its own right, when it "lost" the bidding war for Chrysler (is there such a thing as a Pyrrhic loss?) Last month, we learned that Magna hasn't given up the dream, either. It's trying again, this time bidding -- whether with or against Fiat is still in question -- to take a stake in GM's European Opel division.

So to sum up, the global auto industry has been turned on its head, with Chrysler bankrupt and soon to be owned by its own union, GM en route to becoming "Government Motors," and now even the Japanese automakers are posting losses. With everyone else now in full-scale rout, here comes Magna International, hitting the accelerator and driving to disrupt the industry even further.

But is the price right?

The opportunity for Magna to thrive is clearly present. But... what about the price tag? I mean, the stock sells for almost a 60 P/E. Is this really something you can afford to invest in?

While that P/E may be off-putting at first, other measures of valuation suggest the stock could indeed present a compelling bargain. The value of its assets, for example. Magna's tangible book value amounts to $54.61 per share. That makes the $37 per share price look like pretty quite a sweet discount from sticker price.

Or the scale of its profits. In one of the worst markets for selling cars -- and car parts -- imaginable, Magna generated $315 million in free cash flow last year. Over the five years before that, the company generated more than $3.34 billion -- an average of $668 million per year.

Clearly, this is one car company that knows how to make a buck. And speaking of bucks, Magna's balance sheet shows nearly $2.8 billion in cash, and almost $200 million more in long-term investments. Long term debt amounts to a piddling $143 million, while pension obligations -- that hobgoblin of carmakers south of the (U.S.-Canada) border -- come to just under a modest $300 million.

At today's price, Magna's stock alone sells for just under 13 times trailing free cash flows. For a company that most analysts think will grow at 11.65% annually over the next five years, that seems reasonable. For a company as cash-heavy as Magna is, it's downright cheap.

While Detroit flounders, and even Tokyo shows itself capable of losing money, Canadian Magna continues to motor on.So it looks like Magna shareholders could be in for one very profitable ride.

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