It's been a rough stretch for automakers, as tariffs weigh on bottom-line results and a lack of growth starves the top line.

General Motors (GM) - Get Report , Ford Motor (F) - Get Report , Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) - Get Report and even foreign automakers like Daimler (DDAIF) have not done well lately. However, the companies with larger European exposure have held up better over the past three months, with Daimler actually rising 62 basis points and Fiat slumping "just" 5.5%.

That's nothing compared to the bludgeoning that GM and Ford have taken, as shares are down 15% and 16.2% in the same period, respectively. The results for 2018 are even worse, with GM, Ford and Daimler down 18.5%, 25.8% and 23.5% year to date, respectively. For its part, Fiat is actually flat so far in 2018. Still, it begs the question of whether the beatings are over with for the automakers.

The only saving grace they have right now are the high dividends and low valuations. The potential positive catalyst would be an improvement in trade relations between Washington and various countries. The new agreement between Canada and the U.S. gave Ford and GM a temporary boost Monday.

However, those gains were all but erased when each company reported a year-over-year decline in auto sales for September. Ford's top-performer, the F-Series, had its 16-quarter streak of sales growth snapped in September after deliveries fell more than 8% year-over-year.

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GM CEO Mary Barra

Will Washington Deliver?

Tariffs are driving up input costs and a lack of growth in new vehicle sales are pinching margins for the automakers. It's an interesting scenario when you think about it.

How can investors be bearish on a name like GM, which yields 4.5% and trades at 5.5 times this year's earnings? Well, it doesn't help that analysts expect a 10% decline in earnings for the year, followed by relatively flat growth in earnings and revenue in 2019.

Still, GM owns a majority stake in Cruise Automation, which was just given an $11.5 billion after SoftBank took a near-20% stake in the business. That's worth about a quarter of GM's current market cap, meaning investors are valuing GM's main business as just about $40 billion.

Autonomous driving and mobility services, a low valuation and a strong dividend are all positive catalysts. But what GM really needs is for Washington to get some trade deals done. Ford too.

A reworked arrangement with Canada should be seen as an improvement, even though Congress won't vote on the changes until December. Improvements with Mexico will be another solid step, given how much production comes from south of the border. A solution with steel costs - which Ford cites as a $1 billion impact to profits - and China would further make the automakers more attractive.

Down here, it's hard to hate a company like GM, even though it has been trading terribly and is threatening to break below its recent 52-week lows. Without Washington playing ball, it might be hard for GM to find a catalyst. But if there are improvements, keep an eye on the stock. 

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author had no positions in the stocks mentioned.