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GM Fans Breathe Relief

Updated from 12:03 p.m. EDT

Investors at General Motors (GM - Get Report) breathed easier Thursday as the company reported that a smaller amount of red ink flowed from its operations in the first quarter. The world's largest automaker managed to pare its losses and beef up its cash position even while it continued to bleed market share.

GM lost $323 million, or 57 cents a share, in the quarter, marking a big improvement from last year's loss of $1.3 billion, or $2.22 a share. This year's results include a charge of $681 million, or $1.20 a share, for a recent health care settlement with its workers, plus other items.

Excluding everything but the health care charge, GM lost $529 million, or 94 cents a share, in the latest quarter. That compares with last year's adjusted loss of $988 million, or $1.75 a share.

On average, analysts on Wall Street were expecting a loss of 44 cents a share for the quarter, according to the average of estimates compiled by Thomson First Call. That figure comes from a wide spectrum of estimates, with the most optimistic assessment projecting earnings of 6 cents a share, compared with the most pessimistic forecast for a loss of $1.33 a share.

The large divergence reflects overlying uncertainties about the auto industry, along with the absence of any earnings guidance coming from Detroit after last year's debacle. GM posted a loss of $10.6 billion for 2005 after its chairman and chief executive, Richard Wagoner, had predicted at the beginning of the year that it would earn $4 to $5 a share. Meanwhile, its debt was downgraded to "junk," its accounting practices came under scrutiny from regulators, and its stock lost almost half its value.

Shares of GM recently were trading up $2.07, or 10%, to $22.64, as investors cheered the company's progress.

Joseph Amaturo, an analyst with Calyon Securities, said in a research note that GM's results were "meaningfully improved," despite the continued losses.

"We believe EPS is rather irrelevant and investors should focus on improved auto results in every region and GM's improving cash balance," wrote Amaturo. "In addition, we expect the company's year-over-year auto improvements to accelerate through 2006 due to ongoing mix improvement and continued cost cutting."
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