Yesterday’s release of the Congressional Oversight Panel report on the auto bailout pointed out several fundamental problems with the government’s intervention in the auto industry, all of which stem from what the report termed the “mutually exclusive” goals of the Treasury in overseeing its investment in the industry. But that report focused entirely on the post-bailout management decisions by Treasury, ignoring the decisions made during the bailout itself. And though the White House has, in recent months, redefined its goals in bailing out GM and Chrysler to focus on the improved financial performance of the bailed-out automakers, this is clearly a recent recalibration of its political message. As I pointed out in my latest New York Time Op-Ed,
what Mr. Obama called his “one goal” — having Detroit “lead the world in building the next generation of clean cars” — is nowhere near being achieved.
And, as it turns out, the Administration’s actions in the bailout will inevitably come up well short of that goal in at least one important respect. Read More >
The Congressional Oversight Panel, which oversees the TARP program on behalf of the legislative branch, has released an update on the auto bailout [full PDF here] acknowledging the successes of the government intervention, while airing a number of important concerns. As has been typical of mainstream media coverage of the auto bailout, the good news has already been well-reported. The report, for example, notes that the bailout brought GM and Chrysler’s capacity utilization up, labor costs down, and allowed them to “[start] to reverse” their decades-long declines in market share. Furthermore, estimated government losses on the bailout have been halved, from $40b to $19b. The report’s summary concludes
While it remains too early to tell whether Treasury‟s intervention in and reshaping of the U.S. automotive industry will prove to be a success, there can be no question that the government‟s ambitious actions have had a major impact and appear to be on a promising course. Even so, the companies that received automotive bailout funds continue to face uncertain futures, taxpayers remain at financial risk, concerns remain about the transparency and accountability of Treasury‟s efforts, and moral hazard lingers as a long-run threat to the automotive industry and the broader economy.
Which brings us to the concerns that have received considerably less media attention…
One of the more admirable qualities of the blogging culture is a relentless underdog streak. Anyone who mans the ramparts of a decent blog is forever scouring the worlds of business, media and opinion for an opportunity to attack the most prominent voices of the day. And TTAC is no exception: we certainly came up by attacking the apologists and Polyannas who are still massively overrepresented in the world of automotive commentary. But what a difference a bailout makes. While the mainstream automotive media spent much of the leadup to the auto bailout making apologies and excuses for Detroit’s decline, TTAC told the unpleasant truth, gaining us new readers and credibility every step of the way. Now that I find myself being asked to contribute to one of the most prestigious opinion outlets in the world (the NY Times op-ed page) on a regular basis, TTAC is no longer the underdog, and other blogs have stepped into the breach to attack us as the new status quo. Fair enough… let’s do this thing.
According to our latest sales data, the Detroit Three have enjoyed something of a comeback relative to the “foreign” competition this year. And though it’s not clear how long that trend will last, the media is catching the Detroit-boosting bug again. The NYT’s Bill Vlasic epitomizes the mood, focusing on improvements in GM and Ford’s products in a piece titled American Cars Are Getting Another Look. Between IQS score improvements and anecdotal evidence of consumer interest in Ford and GM’s “gadgets” and “value,” Vlasic’s sidekick, Art Spinella of CNW Research, forwards an interesting theory for the death of the “perception gap” (a construct he helped create, by the way):
Ford has become almost the ‘halo brand’ for G.M. and Chrysler. Because of Ford’s success, people are less resistant in general to considering all of Detroit’s products.
Now that GM’s acquisition of the subprime lender AmeriCredit has had 24 hours to sink in, howls of protest are starting to surface. The charge is being led by Senator Chuck Grassley, who has requested a review of the deal from the SIGTARP, saying
If GM has $3.5 billion in cash to buy a financial institution, it seems like it should have paid back taxpayers first. After GM’s experience with GMAC, which left GM seeking a taxpayer bailout, you have to think the company and, in turn, the taxpayers would be better off if GM focused on making cars that people want to buy and stayed clear of repeating its effort to make high-risk car loans.
And though Grassley’s criticism could be read as mere partisan gamesmanship from a leader of “the party of no,” there are a number of very good reasons for opposing the deal.
After ending the first quarter of this year with $35.7b in cash and equivalents, GM was in the best position it’s enjoyed in decades. And yet, with an IPO prospectus looming, The General is seeking a $5b line of credit and trotting out EBITDAPRO as its in-house measure of financial success. Both of these tactics are hallmarks of companies that are doing poorly, and GM has already learned how problematic loading up on debt and sliced-and-diced financials can be. So why is The General inviting criticism from outlets like Edmunds Autoobserver, which characterizes GM’s push towards an IPO as the rebirth of old bad habits? The simple answer: “business execution.” In other words, GM may have a lot of cash, but it’s got nearly as many demands on its resources as well… and these cash drains hardly add up to a coherent strategy.
Despite having more cash than debt for the first time in decades, GM is going back to Wall Street in search of fresh debt. Over the weekend, The General has been in talks with several banks to secure a $5b revolving line of credit to shore up its liquidity position ahead of an IPO that’s rumored to take place in August. At $5b, GM’s desired line of credit would essentially replace the $5.8b the automaker has repaid to the Treasury, and will help it deal with a number of pressing cash needs to maintain its shaky global empire. But with so many pressing uses for the cash, and political pressure mounting for a rapid IPO, can GM deal with its issues and take on more debt and be worth what the government wants it to be worth? Troublingly, the answers to these questions are not to be found on GM’s balance sheet.
One might believe that GM’s forthcoming IPO marks the second coming of Christ. GM, once the world’s largest corporation, faced oblivion in the winter of 2009. The train wreck of this former company reemerged from burial last summer through the generosity of the US and Canadian taxpayer as a new company shorn of most of its former financial liabilities, unproductive assets, and brands it no longer could support. Everything that Jerry York (R.I.P.) told the automotive world in January 2006 that GM needed to do to survive back then finally came to pass. And now, it’s preparing an IPO to swap ownership from the governments to the public. Ed Whitacre and his team will get the credit for a most remarkable turnaround while Obama will bask in the light of his stewardship of public monies. Let’s get the story straight.
GM’s government-installed Chairman/CEO Ed Whitacre hasn’t been wildly popular with Detroit insiders, earning dismissive raspberries from more than a few corners of the industry’s peanut gallery. But now that his reign of executive terror is over, Detroit seems to be learning how to stop worrying and love the former AT&T man. As Whitacre prepares for his first visit to Washington DC as head of GM, the local media and other members of “Team Detroit” are making their peace with Whitacre. So what lies beneath the new united front?
Opel’s Nick Reilly is casting worried glances towards Berlin and Brussels. What he hears from there makes him double his Maalox dosage. Or pop some local Rennies, if the heartburn meds are in short supply at the Apotheke in Rüsselsheim. Which they undoubtedly are. Nobody wants to help Reilly. Berlin doesn’t want to. Brussels doesn’t want to. Even Opel’s own auditors are no help. This tale would be better told by Kafka. He’s dead. I’ll try. Read More >
As time goes on, Opel’s chances to be rescued by an outside investor are dwindling. A member of the German government’s Opel Task Force told Reuters on Thursday that negotiations between GM and the two competing bidders (RHJ and Magna) for Opel could drag on longer than expected. The way it looks, the deal may never close—because GM doesn’t want to. There could be another rich sugar daddy: It’s you.
As far as Magna v.v. RHJ goes, “the process is just not far enough along from today’s point of view,” said Thomas Schaefer. In his day job, he is state secretary in the finance ministry of Hesse. On the Opel Task Force, he represents the interests of his state and three others that are home to Opel manufacturing plants.
Schaefer doesn’t understand what’s keeping GM from signing: “I believe there are only a limited number of issues still open. If one were to sit down and concentrate on working them out, a solution could be found in 24 hours,” Schaefer said.
GM doesn’t seem to look for solutions. They want to drag it out as long as possible. In the GM blog, Smith writes “We still believe this can be closed by the end of September.”
Dear John: You are delusional. The German national elections are on September 28. After that date, you won’t get a cent out of Berlin. Already, there is very little political leverage in Opel. German opinion has turned anti-bailout. Even the Social Democrats and their union buddies are amazingly subdued on the issue. Actually, the union buddies are distancing themselves from the Social Democrats: For the first time, the German metalworkers union will abstain from endorsing a party or candidate.
Dear John: Or maybe, you are not delusional after all. Maybe you never wanted to sell Opel. Maybe you wanted to buy time and collect the German €1.5b bridge loan. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung comes to the same conclusion voiced by TTAC a day earlier: “Quite possibly, GM doesn’t want to sell Opel. Hardliners at GM don’t want to set Opel free and want to keep them at all costs.” In a separate article, the Sueddeutsche writes that there is a scenario in which GM buys back Opel from the German trustees, using American taxpayer’s money. The Sueddeutsche picked up Vietnamesque rumors of “hawks” and “doves” at Government Motors. The hawks want to keep Opel. The doves want to sell Opel to an investor.
Dear John: In your blog, you deny that option, so vehemently that the grammar turns into collateral damage: “GM has not and will not approach the U.S. Treasury for funding to restructure Opel.” You also claim “GM does not seek to reacquire majority control of Opel, from any investor candidate.”
If that is true—honestly, we don’t think it is, unless these sentences are very carefully parsed—what’s keeping you from closing the deal in the 24 hours Herr Schaefer thinks it will take?
Here is the hawkish sentence parsing scenario: Your overlords in D.C. told you not to sell. You didn’t approach the Treasury for funding, Treasury approached you. They give you the money it takes to pay back Berlin’s bridge loan. Opel goes back to GM. That way, majority control doesn’t need to be reacquired from any investor candidate. Sound about right?
Now John Smith, GM group VP (and GM’s chief negotiator for the sale of Opel), goes on GM Europe’s website and writes with a supposedly straight face, “despite media reports to the contrary, GM has NOT specified its preference for a bidder.” They did not?
The German government sure thinks GM has a preference: RHJ. According to Der Spiegel, John Smith just received a letter from the German government in which he is reminded that the “loan guarantees come with conditions.” The letter was prompted by John Smith telling the German government that he prefers RHJ. GM can’t read the writing on the wall.
Just in case anybody missed the fact that GM can’t read the writing on the wall, John Smith clearly spells out a preference in the same post on the same website.
He word-smiths that the Magna bid “contained elements around intellectual property and our Russian operations that simply could not be implemented. GM has partners in other parts of the world who have joint ownership of these assets . . . we simply could not execute the deal as submitted.”
Supposedly, “discussions with Magna continue in earnest to resolve these challenges.” Yeah, sure.
What about RHJ, for which GM supposedly has no preference? Smith gets excited: “The bid from RHJI is completed and would represent a much simpler structure and would be easier to implement. It would require less monetary participation by the government and would keep our global alignments solid, while still creating an independent Opel/Vauxhall organization in Germany. This remains a reasonable and viable option to be considered as the very difficult issues around the Magna negotiations continue to be worked.”
Does this still sound like no preference?
GM either can’t read the writing on the wall. Or they just aren’t interested in selling Opel. They also are totally ignorant of German politics.
Germany is heading into an election in September. Economy Minister von und zu Guttenberg had opposed an Opel bailout since day one. Guttenberg still “cannot rule out an Opel bankruptcy,” writes the Manager Magazine. This position made the baron from Bavaria the darling of the people. Guttenberg just advanced to Germany’s most popular politician, before chancellor Angela Merkel. Even the Social Democrats, who are indicated to lose the elections by a landslide, don’t want to touch the hot potato Opel more than absolutely necessary.
GM quickly needs to find their glasses and read what it says in big letters on the wall: “No RHJ. No buyback option.” If they don’t, and especially if the matter is not settled until the elections, German politicians will remember what is recommended as the best prevention against swine flu: Wash your hands. Of the Opel mess.
If that happens, Berlin saves billions in loan guarantees. Opel goes bankrupt. Then, BAIC might get Opel after all. For real cheap.
It might be a bad day for GM but it’s a much worse one for Toyota. Really. The days (decades, really) of weak domestic manufacturers shooting themselves in the foot with bad design, poor assembly, and non-existent customer satisfaction in passenger cars are coming to an end. Toyota didn’t have to outrun the bear, it just had to stay ahead of GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Years of producing huge profits in North America hit the wall for Toyota in 2009, and they’re likely not to return. Ever. The game has now changed—and it’s not good for Toyota.
Thanks to US and Canadian taxpayer support, GM and Chrysler are about to get a new start. They’ll enjoy fresh balance sheets, with minimized legacy liabilities and serious money earmarked for new products. (The taxpayers are paying for Fiat to develop cars for North America; you didn’t really think that the Italians would take this risk on their own did you?) Ford, by dint of luck or smart management, borrowed what it needed years ago to make the transformation outside of court oversight.
By the end of this year, all three Detroit automakers will be restructured, resized to match production with demand, and re-energized. They will reenter the market as the lowest cost producers inside the U.S. market, with slimmer, trimmer product lines. These automakers are getting ever-closer to 100 percent capacity utilization.
Looking at product, Ford’s passenger car line up just keeps getting better. The 2010 Taurus looks hot, the Fiesta test drive campaign is generating good press with the Twitter/Facebook crowd, and a new Euro Focus will be here in a two years. Slowly but surely, more Americans are considering a Ford passenger vehicle. Its trucks still lead the category and will continue to do so. Better products, increasing quality, and slowly increasing market share is building FoMoCo momentum.
GM’s go forward brands—Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac—still have some vehicles that don’t cut the mustard with consumers. But the balance is starting to tip back towards the positive. The Malibu and Camaro represent some better efforts. The gorgeous new Buick Lacrosse might give the new Taurus a run for the money. Cadillac will extend the CTS line and bring a new SRX to the market shortly. The Corvette still leads the pack in dollar performance value. And maybe, just maybe, the Cruze and Viva will live up to GM hype machine.
GM’s perhaps two to three years behind Ford with its product development cycle. But it can now concentrate on fewer models. Recent successful launches suggest that GM just needs time to plug the holes for the weak sisters. It now has the money to do so and you can bet (if you’re taxpayer, you already have) that the efforts on fuel efficient passenger cars will receive the bulk of the dollar spend. GM won’t abandon trucks (no matter what Nancy Pelosi thinks) and volume wise, GM leads.
Chrysler can’t do anything under their new pasta-fed management until the re-tooled imports arrive here for production two years hence. Its cars still (mostly) suck, except for the higher-performance versions of its LX cars. But it isn’t going away and will still find some buyers for its products at the pace of the recent past. So this company will just hang on . . . and on . . . and on.
Now, stop and think about this. What has Toyota done for you lately? Is there one single passenger car from Toyota that excites you?
Let’s keep the new Prius out of this discussion for the moment; it’s not a car for drivers but techno-geeks and greens mostly with excitement provided by the fuel gauge, not vehicle dynamics. The Camry might lead the C/D class in sales for now, but will this continue? What happens when Americans actually consider a Malibu or Fusion-based product instead? In terms of design appeal, the Camry looks dowdy or boring (take your pick) and its reliability isn’t any better than the Fusion. Put a four-cylinder EcoBoost engine in that Fusion and Ford wins.
Go through the rest of Toyota’s passenger car line up and compare each vehicle to the current and near future offerings from GM and Ford. The question is: will Toyota customers do the same?
Toyota (or Honda) products have been the default choice. That “Easy Button” is starting to get harder to press for buyers. Yep, Americans will begin to come back to consider Detroit products (at least GM and Ford), and that’s not good for Toyota. And we’ve really never left Detroit for our big pickups and SUVs, whle the Japanese are still mostly playing catch up.
Yep, it’s a bad day for Toyota and a great day for America. You can look forward to a new Detroit that will be competitive, if not lead, in cars and trucks for mass market Americans. Count on it.
Today, Berlin will re-attempt to save Opel after the disastrous Wednesday night / Thursday morning confab. From most accounts, that meeting was a remake of The Three Stooges, with the actors sent by central casting in Washington and Detroit. Berlin is still fuming about the “impertinence” (finance Minister Peer Steinbrück) of the junior Treasury staffer who demanded an extra $415 million more in short-term cash, above the bridge financing of $2.1 billion Berlin had been ready to sign that night. They also are still grumpy about being lied to, or handed “information with a short half-life” as the finance minister put it ever so politely.
Still smarting from the public flogging the German ministers administered after the meeting, GM is in heavy backpedaling mode. It’s all a big misunderstanding, GM CEO Fritz Henderson told Bloomberg. Fritz should have gotten his derriere over to Berlin in the first place, preferably with PTFOA member Ron Bloom alongside.
When the Germans found out during Wednesday night that the Treasury staffer was absolutely useless, they established a quick videoconference with Bloom, desperate for someone who makes at least a bit of sense. To be sure, Germany’s SecState Steinmeier called his colleague Hillary Clinton for help. For what it’s worth, Hillary offered her “utmost support.”
Back to Henderson: Fritz says GM didn’t ask for additional funding for its Opel unit from the German government. Das ist ein Mißverständnis. GM’s request for a $2.1 billion bridge loan remains unchanged. GM just needs the money a bit faster: $630 million upfront. The German government had thought the immediate needs were $140 million, Fritz explained. “Any confusion that was caused by this we take responsibility for,” Henderson says with as much contrition he can muster.
That will go down just swimmingly in Berlin. They were already confused that night in Berlin, because numbers kept changing; some doubted whether the US delegation knew the difference between dollars and euros. Now, it’s $630 million instead of the $415 million that made the Germans hurl carefully crafted invectives westward ho. Everybody: On your knees and pray that nobody reads Bloomberg in Berlin.
Henderson tells the sob story that all GM is doing is try to “protect its European operations, including Germany-based Opel, before a US government-imposed June 1 deadline to restructure or file for bankruptcy.” We’ll see tonight how much sympathy he will get for that one.
One participant of the Wednesday meeting already picked up his ball and went home, to Torino. Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne said he will not make any more concessions, and he will not take part in the second round of meetings tonight, and he did not get full disclosure of the Opel books, and he’s not willing to take on any additional risks. Arrivederla, signora e signori! The other part of the truth is that someone on the inside had leaked that “Fiat is out,” asDer Spiegel reports.
Magna is just about to get up and leave also: Since 6 a.m. (local), Magna has been negotiating with Forster et al. in the Berlin Hotel Adlon, right across from the Brandenburger Tor. Forster must not have talked to the contrite Henderson. The meeting isn’t going anywhere.
Not having learned anything from Wednesday night, GM “is constantly making new demands” BILD Zeitung was told. Yesterday, Magna was ready to help with the $415 million bone of contention. Now they are mad as hell, and are close to saying “Jetzt reicht’s” (Enough is enough.). “They are ready to get up and leave,” BILD reports.
With the negotiations in increasing disarray, a bankruptcy of Opel gets ever more likely. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that Opel has hired insolvency expert Jobst Wellensiek, along with the Clifford Chance lawfirm, which is working on a bankruptcy package to file with the court. Even chancellor Angela Merkel, who so far had taken the presidential high road, now doesn’t want to rule out an Opel bankruptcy, reports Der Spiegel.
It may be the cheaper solution all around. Germany’s economy department calculated that a shuttered Opel would cost the government €1.1 billion—assuming that all 25,000 workers will remain unemployed and find no new jobs (a nuclear winter scenario). Total government costs for an alive Opel: €4.5 billion under the Magna model, €6 billion if Fiat gets it. Germany’s other car manufacturers would be glad to take up the slack.
GM and Magna have until 2p.m. GMT to agree or disagree on a deal. If they agree, the German government will probably accept the deal without much fuss, says the FAZ. If there’s no deal, then the meeting tonight will be short. The bankruptcy of Opel shall be blamed on the ugly Americans, and Germany will go back to more important things. Who will win the fall elections?