By Mike Colias
General Motors Co. said Friday it is increasing its full-year profit guidance for 2018 and predicting even stronger performance this year, with executives anticipating a restructuring in the U.S. that includes plant closures and job cuts will lift earnings.
The company forecasts its earnings per share this year at $6.50 to $7.00, above the average analyst estimate of below $6. The continued U.S. rollout of overhauled pickup-truck models -- the company's most lucrative products -- should help it boost profits in 2019, along with savings generated from its efforts to trim its North American workforce.
GM's shares rose more than 8% in morning trading.
GM Chief Executive Mary Barra drew sharp criticism from President Donald Trump and several members of Congress in November when the nation's largest auto maker by sales announced an operational restructuring plan for North America that is expected to result in thousands of layoffs.
On Friday, GM said the move should add at least $2 billion to GM's operating profit this year.
The Detroit-based auto maker said its profit could slip this year in China, the world's largest auto market, where GM's sales declined 25% in the fourth quarter. But Ms. Barra on Friday downplayed fears of continued weakness in the Chinese car market in 2019, saying she is encouraged by recent trade talks between the U.S. and China, and Beijing's signal it could roll out a potential consumer stimulus.
"There are a lot of factors that will allow us to achieve appropriate earnings this year" in China, she said.
For 2018, GM said its pretax earnings per share, adjusted for one-time items, would exceed its previous estimate of $5.80 to $6.20, set last summer. Robust sales of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles helped drive results beyond the original forecast, the company said. The company plans to announce fourth-quarter and full-year results on Feb. 6.
Five years into her tenure, Ms. Barra has led the company to record profits, in part by jettisoning slow-growing or unprofitable business units, including GM's money-losing European division in a 2017 sale.
Now, she is focused on squeezing costs and improving cash flow to sustain strong results if its key U.S. market cools, while still funneling money toward future bets on electric and self-driving vehicles.
GM's restructuring includes idling five factories in the U.S. and Canada this year, part of a broader plan that could cut around 14,000 employees en route to slashing $6 billion in annual cash costs by 2020. Ms. Barra has said she wants to proactively rein in costs while the economy and company are in good shape.
GM said it would continue spending heavily on autonomous-vehicle development this year, likely matching the roughly $1 billion it was expected to spend in 2018. Executives reiterated plans to begin a commercial robot-taxi service in an undisclosed U.S. city sometime this year.
The auto maker also is doubling its spending on electric vehicles in coming years, though it hasn't quantified the investment. On Friday, GM said its luxury Cadillac brand would serve as its "lead electric-vehicle brand" without detailing plans for specific models.
Slowing growth in China has rattled U.S. companies and the stock market, exacerbated by Apple Inc.'s revenue warning to start the year, which the phone maker blamed largely on a slowdown in the Chinese market.
GM posted strong results in China through the first three quarters of 2018, despite a slowdown in the Chinese auto market that hurt the bottom lines of some rivals. GM has said a bigger proportion of its sales are SUVs and luxury Cadillac vehicles -- which carry higher profit margins -- and that it is strong in the largest cities, where demand has held up better than in smaller markets.
GM projected industrywide U.S. sales this year to come close to the 17.3 million vehicles sold in 2018, a historically strong number.
RBC Capital analyst Joe Spak said GM's 2019 profit outlook is stronger than he expected, but said the company's bullish view relies on continued strength in the world's two biggest car markets, China and the U.S.
"We, and we believe the market, have taken a more conservative approach to thinking about 2019," Mr. Spak wrote in a research note.
Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com