Opening Bell: GM In Reverse

WSJ says more layoffs for automaker; Bloomberg doubts stock touts; Oil to $200?; etc.

General Motors is considering another round of layoffs of its white-collar workers, The Wall Street Journal reports on A1. The carmaker is also weighing whether to quit making some of its eight brands.

The paper doesn’t have specific numbers but says the layoffs could affect thousands of white-collar jobs at GM, which has 76,000 of them. Forget about the employees, though:

People close to senior leadership say thinning GM’s middle-management ranks is among the biggest priorities GM has failed to tackle during Mr. Wagoner’s tenure. With layers of managers, decision-making often takes too long, and subpar performance is sometimes tolerated. Many of the executives blamed for the company’s troubles are still in leadership roles.

We tip our green eyeshade to the Journal’s good GM coverage. However, the paper might have, no pun intended, employed more skepticism or balance when talking about the elimination of thousands of jobs. Somehow we doubt there’s nothing but upside to getting rid of all these people.

It also buries that part of the story toward the bottom, focusing most of the story on whether GM will kill some of its car brands.

Bulls, bears, and monkeys

Wall Street thinks the bear market won’t last long, Bloomberg reports.

Its survey of ten strategists found that they believe on average that the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index will jump 18 percent by the end of the year as corporate profits rebound in the fourth quarter. Lehman Brothers and Deutsche Bank predict the index will soar 27 percent and 29 percent respectively, either of which would be the best second-half gain since 1982.

Bloomberg fairly ridicules the hype—lest we forget, Wall Street likes to sell stocks—following one analyst’s “this is going to be one of the greatest roars we’ve seen” quote with a paragraph noting that the strategists forecasts have been off by 14 percentage points annually for the last eight years.

Quote of the Day:

“A monkey with an abacus is probably better at the end of the day,” said Peter Sorrentino, a Cincinnati-based senior money manager at Huntington Asset Advisors, which oversees $16.7 billion. “To read the strategists’ input is intriguing and thought-provoking, but at the end of the day, you’d better have your own tools. We’re nowhere near as optimistic as some of the forecasts.”

$200 oil=$6 gas

If the Journal’s A6 story on talk of $200 a barrel oil by year’s end is right, you won’t be seeing an 18 percent gain in the S&P for a long, long time.

The WSJ says oil at that level would mean gas prices of more than $6 a gallon, “putting extreme strains on large sectors of the U.S. economy.” Italy’s biggest oil company last week predicted $200 a barrel prices, while OPEC is saying $170 this summer.

The list of forces shoving prices upward is long: a weak dollar driving hot money into commodities; jitters over a possible military conflict with Iran; soaring costs and chronic project delays in the world’s oil patch; concerns over scarce supplies and long-term production declines; and continued robust demand growth in much of the developing world.

We’d like to see this angle reported on and emphasized more:

Geopolitics, particularly the fear of a potential Israeli or U.S. attack against Iran, have also re-emerged as a significant factor in the market. Some investment houses were saying last week that it was more likely than not that a war with Iran would break out this fall.

If that happens, $200 a barrel may seem optimistic.

An NY Post scoop

The Journal on C1 follows a New York Post story this weekend saying Merrill Lynch is in talks to sell its 20 percent stake in Bloomberg. That’s a bid to raise cash to shore up its weakened capital base, which is about to get weaker with $6 billion in looming writedowns.

The paper says Merrill may also sell part of its 49 percent stake in money manager BlackRock, which is worth about $12 billion.

Back to the future

The New York Times on C1 reports that consumer-goods companies are now starting their own record labels to promote musicians, who are struggling with the falloff in music sales.

“When I started in this business 10 years ago, it was hard to get an artist to stand in front of a sign with a logo on it,” said David Caruso, the co-founder of Acme, the agency that negotiated the deal between Island Def Jam and Tag. “Now brands are engaging their audiences with content.”

Forget about the olden days when labels mattered: Atlantic, Stax, Matador, and Sub Pop. Now artists can release their records on Procter & Gamble’s Tag deodorant label!

A few months ago, Bacardi announced that it would help the English electronic music duo Groove Armada pay for and promote its next release. Caress, the body-care line owned by Unilever, commissioned the Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger to record a version of Duran Duran’s “Rio” that it gave away on its Web site to promote its “Brazilian body wash” product. The energy drink company Red Bull is starting a label that is expected to release music before the end of the year.

Next: soap companies will sponsor daytime TV dramas.

For rent: strip malls

The Journal reports on A3 that vacancies at strip malls jumped to 8.2 percent in the second quarter, their highest level since 1995.

That’s a bad sign of consumer health and evidence that the retail industry overbuilt in the last few years. As new neighborhoods are built, new strip malls get developed close to them. Lots of those neighborhoods are half-empty and the new shops have fewer customers than they expected.

Enclosed malls hit their highest empty level in more than six years.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.