General Motors Corp. should start seeing the benefits of its massive cost-cutting initiative in the third and fourth quarters, Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner tells reporters following the auto maker’s annual shareholders meeting today.

Wagoner tells stockholders GM is seeing progress on its turnaround plan, the basics of which he outlined at last year’s annual meeting.

That blueprint includes closing nine facilities and eliminating up to 30,000 hourly jobs in North America through attrition and buyout programs by the end of 2008.

But Wagoner warns shareholders the coming months could be difficult given the company’s strategy of steering clear of money-loosing incentives to clear out summer inventory.

“We’re making rapid strides in the right direction,” Wagoner says of the overall turnaround plan. “We sit here one short year after a pretty long list of stuff, with a lot done and behind us.”

With reductions in health-care and labor outlays, the company expects to cut $7 billion in structural costs in North America by the end of this year. But rising prices on raw materials “will make it difficult to achieve our net $1 billion target cost reduction this year,” Wagoner says.

GM eked out a $445 million profit in the first quarter, its first in five quarters, mainly a result of how it accounts for health-care costs.

The first-quarter black ink also was driven by revenue improvements, which included fewer incentives but more competitive vehicle pricing, Wagoner says, adding that the pain of cost-cutting should begin to bear fruit in the third and fourth quarters.

“I do think we’re going to have some tailwinds as we go into the second half of the year on the cost side, which should help our rate of improvement,” he says. “We can continue to show year over year improvement and we need to.”

GM shareholders voted down a proposal that would have forced separation of the chairman and CEO titles now held by Wagoner.

But they did approve “cumulative voting,” which would give each shareholder a vote based on each share owned multiplied by the number of directors up for election. Under cumulative voting, shareholders may withhold votes from certain nominees in order to cast multiple votes for others, a practice seen as a way to give minority shareholders greater voting power.

GM stockholders also voted in favor of a proposal requiring board members to receive a majority of votes cast to be elected, instead of a plurality.

Wagoner says the company’s governance committee now will take those proposals under consideration. GM’s board of directors had recommended shareholders vote no on all proposals.

During a press conference, Wagoner also lashes out at the Japanese Central Bank, accusing it of going back on a pledge from the G8 conference of world leaders to limit government interference in currency values. GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group all have criticized the Japanese government of unfairly weakening the yen as a way of giving Japanese auto makers a leg up on U.S. manufacturers.

“Once again we see the manipulation driven by the Japanese Central bank artificially weakening the Japanese currency, and it’s really hurt any number of industries in the U.S.,” Wagoner tells reporters.

“It’s really time for them to be called on the carpet on that,” he says.

scanderson@wardsauto.com