DETROIT — The U.S. government ended up losing $10.5 billion on the General Motors bailout, but it says the alternative would have been far worse.
The Treasury Department sold its final shares of the Detroit auto giant on Monday, recovering $39 billion of the $49.5 billion it spent to save the dying automaker at the height of the financial crisis five years ago.
Without the bailout, the country would have lost more than a million jobs, and the economy could have slipped from recession into a depression, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a conference call with reporters.
Now, the American auto industry is back, President Obama said in a statement. “Some of the most high-tech, fuel-efficient cars in the world are once again designed, engineered, and built right here in America — and the rest of the world is buying more of them than ever before,” he said.
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The government received 912 million GM shares, or a 60.8 percent stake, in exchange for the bailout in 2008 and 2009. It began selling shares once GM went public again in November 2010, and the pace picked up this year as the stock rose more than 40 percent. Last month, the government said it expected to sell its remaining 2 percent stake by the end of the year.
Earlier Monday, Mark Reuss, GM’s North American president, told reporters in Warren, Mich., that a government exit would boost sales, especially among pickup buyers.
GM has said repeatedly that some potential customers have stayed away from its brands because they object to the government intervening in a private company’s finances. Because of the bailout, GM had been tagged with the derisive nickname “Government Motors.”
“We will always be grateful for the second chance extended to us, and we are doing our best to make the most of it,” GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson said in a statement.
During the conference call, treasury officials shrugged off a question about whether GM should have been required to pay more because it has a large cash stockpile, saying that the bulk of the bailout money was converted to GM stock. Not doing the bailout would have cost the government more than it lost in missed tax revenue and payments for unemployment benefits and pensions, the officials said.
The company now is sitting on $26.8 billion in cash and is considering restoration of a dividend.
GM went through bankruptcy protection in 2009 and was cleansed of most of its huge debt, while stockholders lost their investments.
Since leaving bankruptcy, GM has been profitable for 15 straight quarters, racking up almost $20 billion in net income on strong new products and rising sales in North America and China.
It also has invested $8.8 billion in U.S. facilities and has added about 3,000 workers, bringing U.S. employment to 80,000.
GM shares rose 44 cents, or 1.1 percent, to $41.34 in after-hours trading after the announcement. They rose 1.8 percent in regular trading, at one point reaching $41.17, the highest level since GM’s 2010 initial public offering.
The auto bailout was part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, with the bulk of the money going to financial institutions. Treasury said it spent $421.8 billion on bailouts and so far has recovered $432.7 billion, including the loss on GM.
The Center for Automotive Research, an Ann Arbor, Mich., think tank, issued an updated report on Monday saying that if the government hadn’t intervened and GM went out of business, nearly 1.9 million jobs would have been lost in 2009 and 2010.
Federal and state governments also would have lost $39.4 billion in tax revenue and payments made for unemployment benefits and food stamps, the study said.
But critics say the bailout put the government in a position to choose winners and losers when it should have stayed out of private business.
“The American people are tired of Washington politicians taking their hard-earned money, using it to make risky bets and pick winners and losers, and coming up short,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said in a statement.