One of General Motors' (NYSE: GM) joint ventures in China is under investigation by the Chinese government for possible antitrust violations, a probe that could reflect the recently strained state of relations between China and the United States.
Buicks on the assembly line at Shanghai GM's factory in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Image source: General Motors.
The newspaper China Dailyreported early on Wednesday that "a penalty for monopolistic behavior will soon be issued against a U.S. automaker for impeding competition" by the price supervision bureau of China's National Development and Reform Commission, or NDRC.
China Daily didn't name the U.S. automaker in question, but Bloomberg reported that the investigation is focusing on Shanghai GM, a joint venture between GM and China's SAIC Motor Corp. that produces vehicles for several GM brands, including Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac.
According to Zhang Handong, the director of the price supervision bureau, who was quoted in the China Daily report, investigators have found that the U.S. company had instructed its distributors to fix prices starting in 2014. A penalty against Shanghai GM would be the seventh issued against an automaker since these anti-monopoly investigations began in 2011.
GM said in a statement that it "fully respects local laws and regulations wherever we operate," but didn't address the specifics of the report.
Is this about GM -- or about Donald Trump?
The first thought of many (including your humble Fool) is that this report was intended as a warning shot to the incoming Trump administration. The president-elect has rankled Chinese officials with his outreach to Taiwan's leadership and hints that his administration might use the long-standing "One China" policy as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations.
That view was bolstered by an unsigned China Dailyeditorial on Wednesday that chided Trump for "trying to gain an upper hand in what is essentially a win-win relationship." The newspaper's editorials are often seen as speaking for the Chinese government.
Of course, officially, the timing is just a coincidence. Zhang told the newspaper that nothing "improper" should be read into the timing of the penalty, and insisted that his investigation will treat domestic Chinese and foreign companies equally.
Shanghai GM is likely to be hit with a big fine
The penalty against Shanghai GM will almost certainly be a fine, and possibly a hefty one: Under the Chinese antitrust law, anticompetitive practices can be punished by fines of between 1% and 10% of a company's revenue from the previous year. The company in this case would presumably be the Shanghai GM joint venture and not GM itself, but the total could still run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The upshot: It'll hurt, but it won't be a huge deal
Shanghai GM is a 50-50 joint venture, so GM will presumably be dented for roughly half the total amount of the fine. GM's total income from its Chinese joint ventures (including Shanghai GM and two others) was $459 million in the third quarter .
Long story short: The fine is likely to hurt, but it's nothing GM can't handle, and it won't significantly impact its ongoing operations in China, nor its fourth-quarter results. The impact on GM stock is likely to be minimal.