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GM predicts Europe profit in ’16, ending years of losses

General Motors said it expects its first profit in Europe in more than a decade in 2016 and that it will also hit its targeted 10 percent operating profit magin for North America the same year.

GM had previously said it would hit those targets by mid-decade, but it offered the more specific timetable at its investor meeting at the company’s test track outside Detroit.

GM CEO Mary Barra said the target for Europe took into account steps to minimize the impact of the downturn in the Russian market. GM said $1.5 billion in improved operating results in the region by 2016 includes the elimination of $700 million in restructuring costs and the addition of $400 million from increased sales and market share. GM last reported a profit in Europe in 1999.

“GM is still very much in a ‘show me’ status with the investment community,” Gabelli & Co. analyst Brian Sponheimer said. “That it has the confidence to target a profitable Europe is promising, but solid execution by this unproven management team will ultimately win over investors.”

The No. 1 U.S. automaker also said any cash returned to shareholders would be mostly through increased dividends. In March, it paid its first quarterly common-stock dividend in almost six years. Some analysts had speculated GM might offer a broad stock buyback program, tapping its $39 billion in cash and equivalents.

The projections came two days after its smaller rival, Ford disappointed investors with its financial outlook. Ford slashed its profit outlook for 2014, blaming higher recall costs in North America and steeper losses in Russia and South America. It also offered a disappointing 2015 profit forecast.

GM did not provide an update of its overall 2014 financial forecasts. It said in July that it was on line to deliver earnings in 2014 that would be modestly better than last year’s operating profit of $8.6 billion.

GM now expects a significant loss in its International Operations, which excludes China, and a marginal loss in South America. Longer-term, GM is targeting margins in the mid-single digits in South America and International Operations.

In addition to the outlook for Europe and North America, GM said it is targeting an overall operating margin of 9 to 10 percent by early next decade. That would be up from 6.3 percent, excluding recall costs, in the second quarter this year.

Reducing the number of core platforms on which it builds all its vehicles globally, from 14 in 2015 to 11 in 2020 to four in 2025, is one of the ways it plans to achieve this target. It said almost all global production will come off core vehicle platforms by 2020.

In China, GM expects its joint ventures to maintain net income margins of 9 to 10 percent. It will invest $14 billion in China through 2018 to open five assembly plants and launch 60 new or refreshed vehicles, including nine new SUVs. GM Financial expects to enter China later this year.

Barra also said GM would not change its estimate for the expected cost of establishing the fund to compensate accident victims for a defective ignition switch which has been linked to at least 23 deaths. GM previously took a $400 million charge for the fund and said the cost could rise another $200 million.

Barra said GM is still cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice in the agency’s probe of how the automaker handled the discovery of the faulty switch. She declined to say whether any financial impact would result from that probe.

Barra, who took over as CEO in January, also said GM has made all the necessary replacement switches ahead of its early October target date.