Today’s article of the day comes from The Wall Street Journal:
Back in December, in an economy far, far away, then-CEO Rick Wagoner tossed out the scary cost to taxpayers of $100 billion if General Motors wasn’t saved by the government. Well, GM was saved in December and again in March, and as early as today the feds will rescue it a third time in a prepackaged bankruptcy that is already costing at least $50 billion, and that’s for starters. Welcome to Obama Motors, and what is likely to be a long, expensive and unhappy exercise in political car making.
Taxpayers have so far put up nearly $20 billion, which was supposed to be a loan at market rates but under Treasury’s forced restructuring will mostly be converted into equity in the new GM. The feds are also putting up $30.1 billion in “debtor in possession” financing and will effectively nationalize the once-mighty auto maker by taking roughly 60% ownership. (That’s not counting $12.5 billion to save GMAC, the company’s financing arm.) The Canadian government will go along for the ride for 12% of the new GM, the UAW will get about 17.5%, and the hapless bond holders have to settle for 10%.
The Obama Treasury is portraying this as the best solution to the mess it inherited, leaving GM with much-reduced legacy costs for health care, a cleaned-up balance sheet, a humbler UAW that has forgone some performance pay, and a more efficient dealer network and product line. GM, we are told, will now be able to make a profit and some day even return money to taxpayers. If you close your eyes and imagine that GM’s private managers would be able to make decisions based solely on business judgment, you can even start to believe.
But then you snap out of it.
Every decision the feds have made since December suggests that nonpolitical management will be impossible. First they replaced Mr. Wagoner — whom they are nonetheless still paying — with the more pliable Fritz Henderson as CEO and Kent Kresa as Chairman. The latter are good at playing Washington but unproven in making popular cars. Then Treasury bludgeoned the bond holders in both Chrysler and GM to take pennies on the dollar, which will not make creditors eager to lend to the companies in the future.
There’s also the labor agreement that the UAW approved last week, which goes some way toward reducing costs but probably not enough to make the new, smaller GM competitive. The new agreement simplifies some work rules and job descriptions but makes no reductions in hourly pay, pensions or health care for active workers. The agreement must also be renegotiated in two years by an Obama Administration running for re-election and weighing the need to keep Big Labor happy against the risks to taxpayer-shareholders. Who do you think wins that White House debate?
The Administration’s concessions to the UAW also restrict the company’s ability to import smaller, more fuel-efficient cars that it already makes overseas. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger boasted on PBS’s “NewsHour” last week that “we, quite frankly, put pressure on the White House, the [auto] task force, the corporation” to bar small-car imports from overseas. GM is also selling its Opel operation in Europe as part of this restructuring, and the Washington Post reports that one of Treasury’s sale conditions is that Opel’s new owners must stay out of the U.S., and even out of China, where GM’s business is strong.
This is raw trade protectionism. It is also textbook cartel behavior and would be an antitrust violation if practiced by a business. But the benefits for GM are illusory because the import limits mean the company will have to spend even more to retool its domestic plants to make the little green cars that President Obama and Congress are demanding. No one knows if Americans will buy such cars, even if GM can make them competitively in the U.S.
The Administration promises to wield a light ownership hand, but it’s only a matter of time before Congress starts to micromanage GM’s business judgments. Every decision to close a plant will be second-guessed, much like a military base-closing. And what about buying parts from foreign suppliers? Will those also be banned when Mr. Gettelfinger demands it, even if the costs are lower? GM’s managers and directors will have one eye on enhancing shareholder value, but the other on pleasing their political minders in Washington.
The Obama Administration has been whispering to the press that it could start selling its stake within a year to 18 months, and that it hopes to be out of the business entirely in five years. But even assuming that the taxpayer investment stops at $50 billion, GM would have to be worth a cool $80 billion for taxpayers to break even on their 60% stake. By way of comparison, GM’s market capitalization at its recent peak in 2000 was only $56 billion.
The larger corruption will be when government tries to vindicate its ownership by favoring GM over Ford and the other auto makers that aren’t wards of the state. The TARP legislation contained one blatant example in the form of a $7,500 tax credit for consumers who buy GM’s new electric car, the Chevy Volt. Expect more such favoritism, including huge new subsidies for green cars if consumers prove resistant to their charms.
Mr. Obama likes to say he’s a pragmatist who only prefers a government solution when it will work. But in resurrecting an industrial auto policy that even the French long ago abandoned, the President has made himself GM’s de facto CEO. Our guess is that he’ll come to regret it as much as taxpayers will.