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GM considers options for its Lyft stake following IPO

By Ben Klayman
The GM logo is seen at the General Motors plant in Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil, January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Roosevelt Cassio

By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - As Lyft Inc cruises toward an initial public offering this month, one of the big winners will be General Motors Co, whose stake in the ride-hailing firm could be worth as much as $1.27 billion.

GM is not talking about its plans for that investment, and investors polled by Reuters, owning a collective 35.7 million shares, do not have a consensus view.

Some believe the No. 1 U.S. automaker should hold on to it for strategic reasons, while others want the money returned to shareholders through buybacks or a special dividend.

"Unless GM can leverage its investment in Lyft to accelerate its own robo-taxi ambitions with Cruise, we believe it would be appropriate to cash out its stake to repurchase its own under-valued shares," said Michael Razewski, a partner with Douglas C. Lane & Associates, which owned about 2.6 million GM shares at the end of 2018.

Cruise Automation is GM's self-driving car unit.

Lyft on Monday launched the investor "roadshow" for the March 29 IPO, and it said it to sell Class A shares at $62 to $68 a share.

GM owns more than 18.6 million Class A shares, according to the Lyft filing, meaning its investment at the outset could be worth $1.16 billion to $1.27 billion. GM invested $500 million in Lyft in January 2016.

With a 180-day lock-up period during which GM cannot sell and the expected April IPO of larger rival Uber Technologies Inc further stoking interest in the ride-hailing sector, the value could subsequently rise.

GM spokesman Tom Henderson said the automaker is happy with its Lyft stake, but declined to discuss future plans for the shares. Lyft spokeswoman Alexandra LaManna had no comment.

Several shareholders would like to see GM sell the stake and use the proceeds to repurchase shares or pay a special dividend.

"If I want to buy Lyft, I'll go do it myself," said Scott Schermerhorn, managing principal with Granite Investment Advisors, which owns more than 210,000 GM shares. "Take the proceeds and invest it in something that's core to their business or give it back to shareholders."

However, Jacques Elmaleh, portfolio manager with Steinberg Global Asset Management, with almost 24,000 GM shares at the end of 2018, said it is too early to write off the relationship.

"I'd be inclined that they hold onto it and see how it plays out," he said.

Some of GM's larger investors - the United Auto Workers retiree healthcare benefits trust, hedge fund manager David Einhorn and T. Rowe Price Group Inc - declined to comment. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc did not respond to a request for comment.

GM's former president, Dan Ammann, joined Lyft's board as the companies eyed developing networks of self-driving cars together. However, there have been few signs of cooperation. Ammann - who now leads Cruise - left the Lyft board in June 2018.

Analysts have speculated GM will eventually sell shares in Cruise or spin it off, and the incentive plan disclosed last month for Ammann pointed toward a possible IPO.

Kyle Martin, analyst with Westwood Holdings, which owns more than 30,000 GM shares, would just as soon see GM sell the Lyft stake and use that money in Cruise.

"That's a meaningful amount of money that could certainly help them close the gap with Waymo and put them even further ahead of Ford," he said, referring to technology leader Alphabet's Waymo and GM rival Ford Motor Co.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman, additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski)