The Conservative government has sold all of its remaining shares in General Motors, providing a one-time prebudget boost to federal finances and closing the books on Ottawa's unprecedented decision to help bail out two American auto makers during the global financial crisis.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver made the announcement Monday evening via a news release, announcing the major decision just two weeks before he delivers a budget on April 21.
"With [Monday's] announcement, we have eliminated a market exposure for Canadian taxpayers and returned GM to private sector ownership, having supported its continued contribution to the Canadian economy," said Mr. Oliver in the statement.
The drop in the value of the Canadian dollar over the past year also helps Ottawa post a larger gain from the sale than it would have a year ago.
The move goes a long way toward making up the expected loss in revenue the government is facing as a result of dramatically lower oil prices. Economists had said the lower oil prices in recent months would have largely erased the $1.9-billion surplus for this year that Mr. Oliver had forecast in November when North American crude was at $81 (U.S.)
Now with oil trading lately around $50 (U.S.), selling the shares allows the government to take the hit and still forecast a surplus, which is a key political promise for the Conservatives.
"This is definitely going to close that gap," said Toronto Dominion economist Randall Bartlett, who said it will only be known in hindsight whether Ottawa would have been better or worse off to delay the sale.
"You never know with financial assets whether it's a good time," he said.
The federal Crown corporation responsible for managing the shares, Canada GEN Investment Corporation, sold 73,389,831 common shares to Goldman, Sachs & Co, according to the release.
The government says further details – including the selling price of the shares and the total amount of revenue raised via the transaction – will be announced in the next several days.
Shares of GM closed Monday at $36.66 (U.S.). At that price, the shares would be worth $2.69-billion, or about $3.4-billion (Canadian).
Even if Ottawa sold at the current market price, it likely would not be able to book all of that as an improvement to its bottom line. The government had already booked $1.5-billion in expected revenue for 2015-16 from asset sales. In its 2013 fall fiscal update, it said examples of such asset sales could include the GM shares.
By waiting to sell the shares after April 1, which is the start of the fiscal year, the government is likely able to record the gains as revenue in the 2015-16 fiscal year – which is when it has promised to return to a balanced budget.
Mr. Oliver announced in January that he would be delaying the release of the 2015 budget until at least April in order to gauge the economic impact of lower oil prices.
The governments of Canada and Ontario purchased the shares of GM and Chrysler during the financial crisis that hit in late 2008. The U.S. government also purchased automotive shares at the time. The government of Ontario sold its remaining shares in February and Ottawa had previously sold all of its shares in Chrysler. The gains from the sale are not expected to fully recoup the cost of purchasing the shares during the recession.
The two governments have argued the unprecedented decision to step in was worth it because it prevented a much greater loss of Canadian auto-sector jobs.
Auditor-General Michael Ferguson reported last November that Ontario and Ottawa had recovered $5.4-billion of the $13.7-billion they contributed as part of the bailout to save Chrysler and General Motors.
When combined with contributions from the U.S. government, the total cost of the bailout was about $80-billion. Paul Boothe, who led the Canadian negotiating team during the bailout as associate deputy minister of Industry Canada, told The Globe and Mail last year that he believes GM and Chrysler would have left Canada had the governments not participated.
Labour leaders had urged Ontario and Ottawa to hold on to the shares as a bargaining chip in securing pledges from GM to maintain jobs in Canada.
"It would have been ideal for the government to hold on to the shares and use that to leverage General Motors to make a strong commitment to the facility in Oshawa," said Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, in an interview Monday. "Obviously, the government is using every means possible to raise as much cash as they can without considering the future of the auto industry in the country."