Category: GM Death Watch

By on May 1, 2009

GM’s investors and bondholders have taken their lumps. The value of their investments have plummeted and they’ve been blamed for enabling GM’s mismanagement. Hedge fund managers and institutional investors are not the most popular people in the wake of the financial meltdown so it’s easy to forget that many investors are not Wall Street wheeler dealers, but regular folks with investments.

Patricia St. Pierre is a nice lady. She and her husband Cliff worked hard, raised a family, got their kids through college and retired on their investments. They live on Grosse Ile, a comfortable island suburb downriver of Detroit. She’s 70 now and she’s worried about having to go back to work because their life savings may be wiped out in a GM bankruptcy.

Mrs. St. Pierre and her husband have what she calls a “large amount” invested in unsecured GM bonds. The St. Pierres attended a meeting at Warren’s town hall, across the street from GM’s Tech Center with other individual bond holders on Thursday as the President was announcing the bankruptcy of crosstown rival Chrysler. When I asked her how she came to own the bonds, she said that they had moved to bonds during a downturn in the stock market with their mutual funds. They wanted to try “something that was safe”.

They initially did well with Ford bonds but moved to GM debt three years ago when Ford seemed to be at greater risk than GM. As their broker told them, “you don’t think they’ll ever be out of business.” That same reason is why they haven’t sold before now. They also didn’t know at first that the debt was unsecured. Then the bottom fell out last fall. “Everything turned on a dime.”

Though neither has worked for the company in years, the St. Pierres have ties to GM. Her father is a GM retiree and she worked for GM right out of high school for seven years. Cliff St. Pierre graduated from the General Motors Institute. LIke GMI grads back in the day he worked as an intern at GM and then started his career there.

The St. Pierres live off the income from their investments and Patricia acknowledged that they’ve earned interest since owning the bonds, but they face losing all the principal since the bonds are unsecured. GM has offered debt holders 225 shares of stock in a reorganized GM in exchange for $1000 of the $27 billion in debt GM owes, plus whatever accrued interest the bonds have at this point. If they don’t accept the deal, GM will declare bankruptcy and they’ll get nothing.

The stock offered to bondholders will represent 10% of GM’s equity. Stockholders, punished for enabling a feckless board of directors, will own 1 percent of GM stock. The government will own 50 percent of GM, and the UAW’s VEBA will own the remaining 39 percent.

One thing that troubles the St. Pierres the most is that they are being left completely out of the loop and not informed by either GM or the government. While the large bondholders are negotiating with and in constant contact with GM and the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA), the St. Pierres haven’t heard a thing except for the most recent prospectus from GM.

There is nobody in the process representing their interests. They’ve contacted Senators Stabenow and Levin to complain but their elected officials haven’t been very reassuring. They feel pretty helpless. Their broker doesn’t really know any more than they do. The St. Pierres aren’t destitute, but you could hear the worry in her voice. “I’m glad my kids aren’t about to graduate (high school) and go to college.”

While it can be argued that they took a risk and lost their bet, the government cutting in line ahead of other prior creditors creates a huge dilemma for investors, investors that may be you, your neighbors and your family members. As Cliff St. Pierre said, “who will want to buy bonds?” Who will want to invest if the government is going to step in and declare your investment virtually worthless?

Some say that GM’s stakeholders, management, the UAW, shareholders and bondholders, all deserve blame for the company’s decline, but the bondholders and stockholders, while perhaps giving management too little oversight, played by well defined rules, the rules and laws we’ve used to become the wealthiest society in the planet’s history. Now the President is rewriting the rules.

When I asked her who she thought would protect her interests more, the administration in Washington or a bankruptcy judge, Patricia laughed ruefully and said the bankruptcy judge. She’s not happy about the government owning GM. GM’s bondholders, after all, do have a bigger investment in the company than the government. “It’s not a good situation,” she said.

By on May 1, 2009

It doesn’t seem that long ago that General Motors was pouring billions of dollars into Cadillac in a bid to create a line of world-class luxury cars. American enthusiasts rejoiced. Now, with GM on the verge of bankruptcy, all signs point to a full-scale retreat. Assuming GM pulls through, within the next five years it will kill Buick outside China–or at least kill its Lexian aspirations—and shift Cadillac downmarket into a “near luxury” position.

Cadillac’s bid for a return to greatness met with an early success. The 2003 CTS’ angular styling might have polarized opinions, but it made a strong statement and grabbed everyone’s attention. The car’s performance suggested that GM was capable of developing a first-rate rear-wheel-drive sport sedan.

The Escalade sold well, but its pushrod powerplant and antiquated chassis did not fit Cadillac’s new mission. A DOHC-powered, independently suspended crossover would be much more fitting. Problem was, in the late 1990s it was hard to tell what would make for a successful crossover. Should the proportions be those of an SUV, or more like those of a station wagon? Cadillac opted for the latter, while the market opted for the former. Combine wagonesque proportions with a BMW-like price, and the 2004 SRX flopped.

The 2004 XLR roadster was sharply styled, but insufficiently luxurious and (like the SRX) over-priced. Perhaps emboldened by the CTS’ success, Cadillac convinced itself that it could give subsequent models Teutonic prices from the start—a bad move. Both Toyota with the original LS 400 and Hyundai with the Genesis recognized that new entries must start low. If they sell, then you can raise the price. So the XLR became strike two.

The CTS had carved out a spot vis-a-vis the BMW 3-Series. Could a rear-wheel-drive Seville replacement do the same against the 5-Series? First, newly hired car czar Bob Lutz delayed the STS. Not a fan of Cadillac’s new look, he ordered that the STS’ greenhouse be redone to add tumblehome—even though such a major change late in the process cost tens of millions of dollars.

Though perhaps an improvement, the revised design both failed to be beautiful and failed to make a strong statement. The interior, though more luxurious than that of the CTS, was still not luxurious enough for the STS’ richer target market, and its styling was boringly conventional. The market yawned, and stuck with the imports. Strike three.

Hyper-expensive supercharged STS-V and XLR-V variants were little more than a distraction. If the basic product isn’t a winner, adding power isn’t going to make it one.

Lutz’ desire to offer a production version of the gargantuan 13.6-liter Sixteen? To those thinking with their heads, the Sixteen seemed overly ambitious and a poor use of corporate resources. Before it could realistically attempt a statement like the Sixteen, Cadillac first needed to succeed not only with the STS but with a never approved S-Class competitor. In retrospect, this embodiment of the Detroit executive ego seems downright ridiculous.

Back in the real world, Cadillac’s upmarket adventure was dealt a fatal blow when the STS failed to carve out a beachhead north of $50,000. In the aftermath, Cadillac couldn’t decide what to do next. Plans to replace both the STS and DTS with a large rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan wandered this way and that, then died. The V8 that would have powered this car met the same fate. Hyundai could field a competitive DOHC V8. Detroit would not.

Yes, the redesigned 2008 CTS has been a hit and deservedly so. But you can’t base a luxury brand on one $35,000 model.

At the same time, Cadillac can’t simply return to where it used to be. The DTS has solidered on, but sales have slowed to a trickle. With the Zeta-based replacement canceled, and no new large front-wheel-drive platform in the pipeline, Cadillac could simply abandon the large luxury sedan segment. With the collapse of the conventional SUV market, the Escalade also seems unlikely to live on in its current form.

So, whither Cadillac? With the foray into Teutonic territory one for four, and no funds for another round, Cadillac’s target must shift from the Germans to entry-level Lexus. For 2010, the SRX switches to an Equinox-related front-wheel-drive platform. Next up: a LaCrosse-based sedan. After that: perhaps a Lambda-based Escalade.

In short, Cadillac’s new focus will be Buick’s current focus: front-wheel-drive-based, comfort-biased vehicles with transaction prices in the thirties to low forties. If the two aren’t to overlap, Buick will either have to shimmy closer to Chevy or become China-only. Among the many casualties of GM’s meltdown, this forced acceptance of Cadillac’s second-tier status could be the saddest. Even Lincoln, which beat a similar retreat post-Nasser, could emerge with a stronger product line.

Want to remember Cadillac at its final zenith? Buy a 2009 CTS-V.

By on April 28, 2009

This is not what I expected. Sure, I got the bankruptcy bit right. Big deal. Better analysts than me were making that call back when I was playing with Corgi toys (another car company destined for the scrap heap). But I never thought Uncle Sam would nationalize GM. Ace commentator PCH101 will tell you it’s all in good fun: a temporary government intervention that gives taxpayers a shot at recovering some of the tens of billions [we shouldn’t have] spent keeping the zombie automaker alive. Or at least postpones GM’s inevitable dissolution for a less financially fraught finale. But I reckon politics will rear its ugly head, create a distortion field around GM’s car making business and kill any hope of GM surviving in any way, shape or form. The acid test: the Chevy Volt.

Clearly, the Volt is a born loser. For one thing, it’s too late. If GM’s electric/gas plug-in hybrid had appeared ten years ago, before the Toyota Prius created and satiated the market for econo-hybrids, the Volt might have had a chance. Second, it’s born under a bad sign: bankruptcy. Third, it’s arriving (if it ever arrives) at the wrong time. With the economy in the doldrums, gas prices in Davy Jones’ locker and new car prices about to tank (thanks to GM’s aforementioned C11), a relatively cramped $30K high mileage sedan boasting untested technology that requires consumer behavior modification (i.e., plugging it in) is, well, doomed. Which reminds me: the Volt doesn’t work.

The undaunted cheerleaders over at Autoblog (AB) posted a behind-the-wheel test of GM’s “plug-in savior.” Click on the video and you learn that the EV boosters were treated to an “80 percent plus representation of what [the Volt buyer’s] electric vehicle driving experience will be in the Chevy Volt.” The test—such as it wasn’t— completely missed the point. It’s not the “experience” that counts. It’s the utility. Can the Chevrolet Volt drive a full 40 miles on battery power only? Uphill? Upwind? In an arctic chill? In the desert heat? How long does it take to recharge? And how does it drive on gas power AFTER the battery discharges? GM’s Volt man proudly proclaims The General’s about to build 75 Volt prototypes. Big friggin’ deal. Show us the practicality. Now.

Better yet, don’t. There is no business case for this car. In fact, the Volt is a near-perfect representation of the kind of half-baked, reality-divorced, over-optimistic product development that drove the artist formerly known as the world’s largest automaker into Uncle Sam’s loving embrace. It’s a Hail Mary from a company that doesn’t have a prayer of dislodging the Toyota Prius from its stranglehold on environmentally conscious, financially frugal car drivers. Never mind the Volt’s plug-in aspect. ToMoCo is already working on a plug-in Prius. If the Volt proves that power cords are pistonhead paradise, the Prius will have one. AND it will work.

Did I mention the Honda Insight? By the time the Chevy Volt gets around to getting around (for real), the Insight will have mopped-up the few thousand American consumers who want a Prius, but prefer someone else’s version. Lest we forget, GM has been producing knock-offs that singularly fail to knock the competition off their sales perch for the last thirty years or more. Be they economy, muscle or luxury cars. Truth be told, in the last two decades (at least), GM’s only consistently competitive, consistently profitable vehicles have been trucks and SUVs. Uh-oh . . .

Common sense says whatever’s left of GM after bankruptcy needs to make as much money as possible to pay us back. To stop sucking-up billions of our hard-earned tax dollars to provide work for union workers, management idiots and federal bureaucrats. The American automaker openly, brazenly admits that they’re not going to make money on the Volt for a long time. [See video above.] An indeterminate amount of time, in fact. Meanwhile, the Volt will require further billions to [maybe] make its technology work. And then tens of millions more to market the damn thing.

So kill it.

If the goal is to return to profitability, post-C11 “good” GM should focus on building the most profitable vehicles left in their arsenal. Then they should pick a couple of vehicles that have the most potential to be profitable and figure out how to make them profitable. There’s no way that niche products can pass this stress test. CTS Sports Wagon? Dead. Chevrolet Volt. Gone.

Of course, a return to profitability is no longer GM’s goal. Since when does the US government care about profitability? Have you looked at the federal deficit lately? When President Obama outlined his reasons for rescuing Detroit, it was all about green jobs and a healthy planet. Not profits or ROI. Which means the Volt will not die. But GM will.

By on April 27, 2009

Time’s up! GM has announced that 2010 will be Pontiac’s final year. No surprise to anyone who’s been reading the writing on the wall. But nevertheless a sign that those in charge of GM’s destiny are more interested in appearing to be doing something than in actually addressing the core weaknesses of the car manufacturer. Why is so much attention focused on GM’s brands? Because, like the CEO, they’re what outsiders can see and at least superficially understand. The real problems are both less visible and less easily comprehensible.

As some within GM have long recognized, a wide array of brands could be a major competitive advantage. When you have multiple brands to work with rather than just one or two, each brand can be tightly focused, and thus be more meaningful than a brand that must be all things to all people. GM didn’t prosper because it failed to provide each brand with distinctive, desirable cars. Instead, every brand attempted to be all things to all people. Why? Partly because distinctive products cost more to develop than badges alone, but also because each brand had its own dealers, and each dealer wanted one of everything.

Dealers’ desire was not irrational. Demand for different sorts of cars varies with gas prices, the economy, and fluctuating consumer tastes. Any dealer that wanted steady sales—a key goal for any business—wanted a diverse set of products to sell. This longstanding problem was finally addressed a few years ago, when Buick, Pontiac, and GMC were combined into a single channel. This should have freed up Buick and Pontiac to focus on specific groups of car buyers with finely tuned products.

Pontiac’s focus was to be enthusiasts—for real this time. Bob Lutz announced that every future Pontiac would be a rear-wheel-drive performance-oriented car. Three models, each with two or three body styles, would have been sufficient: the Solstice coupe and roadster, the large G8 sedan and (planned but canceled) wagon, and a smaller Alpha-based coupe, sedan, and (possibly) hatch. No other mainstream brand offers a compact rear-wheel drive sedan, or focuses so tightly on enthusiasts. An Alpha-based Pontiac could have been a big winner. Hopefully we’ll still see this car from Chevrolet. But it would have been better from a brand focused entirely on driver’s cars.

So, maybe GM had finally figured out how to realize Pontiac’s potential, only to have gas prices shoot up and then have the bottom fall out of the market. GM being GM, plans for performance-oriented cars were tabled not long after gas prices spiked. Unlike the strongest auto companies, GM has long had a habit of constantly second-guessing its plans and over-reacting to car market fluctuations. Of course, this time around GM had no choice: it’s out of cash. It might have finally muddled through to a solution, but too late.

And so Pontiac will die next year. Saturn, Hummer, and Saab will be gone even sooner. This doesn’t change one key fact: killing brands does not address GM’s historical inability to consistently create distinctive, desirable cars.

Limited resources have often been blamed for this inability. Supposedly GM split its product development and marketing funds too many ways. But if each product was viable, it should have been possible to gather the necessary funds for it, at least before the recent collapse. Funds were limited because of limited faith, both inside and outside GM, that proposed products would be profitable.

The root problem: senior executives at the top of the corporation continue to be involved in more product decisions than they can possibly make well. These senior executives cannot understand each product and market the way an empowered, dedicated product team could. And they lack the time to personally make all of the decisions that need to be made.

The visible consequences: a few great cars that received the undivided attention and logjam-breaking influence of senior executives, and a larger number of not-so-great ones that did not receive this attention and influence.

Two possible solutions: reduce product offerings to a number that senior management can personally attend to, or transfer decision-making authority for these products to multiple units lower in the organization. GM made feints at the latter strategy, most notably with the mid-nineties formation of cross-functional vehicle teams led by Vehicle Line Executives. But this decentralization was never complete, and with each crisis the organization backslid to its old ways.

Even with GM on the brink of bankruptcy, there’s still no sign that substantial changes are being made to the GM organization. They’ve replaced the CEO and they’re reducing the number of brands. This treats the symptoms rather than the disease. How this course of action generally turns out: the surgeon (wielding a cleaver in this case) cuts and cuts and cuts until the patient dies.

By on April 27, 2009

Excitement is an ephemeral phenomenon. As was Pontiac. It had its glorious day in the sunshine of the exciting sixties. Pontiac was like the polite, quiet middle child who ran away to California in the early sixties, became a huge star, crashed in 1970, and played the county fair nostalgia circuit ever since. In between repeated bouts in rehab. And now we’re here to pay our last respects.

Not only was Pontiac the “quiet” child in the GM household, it was also the unplanned “accidental” child. Created in 1926 as a minor lower priced “companion” to Oakland, one of GM’s original five car companies, Pontiac survived its mother’s death in the Depression. To save costs, GM’s President Alfred Sloan had Pontiac share a lengthened Chevrolet body and chassis as well as other major components. It became a tarted-up Chevy, and with Pontiac’s first straight-eight engine in 1933, a more powerful one. Thus badge-engineering was born.

In Sloan’s “a car for every pocketbook” dictum, Pontiac became the (realistic) aspiration for the Chevy driver of the thirties. Pontiac’s prices slotted in exactly between the most expensive Chevy range and the cheapest Oldsmobile.

But Sloan’s religiously hierarchical structure collapsed at the beginning of the Depression. And by the fifties, the divisions were all over each other. It was like a new twist to a professional wrestling tag team match: The GM Mid-Price Thee Stooges. And although the GM team made sure to make it look like they were also fighting with each other, it didn’t really matter, as long as the real competition was flattened. The competition’s contestants like Edsel and DeSoto were tossed out of the ring, permanently. Mercury, Dodge and Chrysler were left bloody. And it wasn’t ketchup either.

But Pontiac was the laggard of the GM team until 1959. That’s when it reinvented itself, started working out in earnest, grew a “wide track,” and let its (now dyed blonde) hair grow long. And overnight, it became the Star(Chief).

Instantly, Pontiac jumped to fourth place in US sales. The dreamy 1960 “Wide Track Pontiac” ads as rendered by Fitzpatrick and Kaufman are icons of the time when Americans were ready to fully embrace image, youthfulness, style, and most of all, excitement. Pontiac’s decade had arrived.

Unarguably the best styled cars of the sixties, Pontiac jumped to third place in 1962 and held that spot though the decade. It was a crushing blow to Chrysler’s Plymouth division, which had claimed that perch since the late twenties. And in doing so, Pontiac sucked Chevy right into the GM tag team spectacle. And before long, even Caddy would be in the ring too, fighting for the working-man’s attention (and suspension of disbelief).

But all during the sixties, Pontiac had the moves to keep the eyes on it. The first was the 1963 Grand Prix coupe. It had the exclusiveness and formal elegance of the Buick Riviera coupe, at about three-fourths the price.

But Pontiac really wowed the crowds with its 1964 GTO. Now here was something that hadn’t been seen before. Drop-kick the big 389 into the light, mid-size Tempest, along with suspension, tire, appearance and interior upgrades, and the affordable American enthusiast car reached its zenith. In this pre-BMW era of fossilized British roadsters, the GTO overwhelmingly had the best overall performance/dollar equation. Pontiac was BMW before BMW was cool (or available).

But like for so many stars of the sixties, the seventies were not kind to Pontiac. Its flabby beltline was clearly showing. What remaining life forces it could muster were all concentrated on one remaining move, the Trans Am. And even that became a bit of a joke after one too many times. Pontiac’s star had passed, and it tumbled out of the coveted number three spot.

Now its moves were reduced to pathetic little imitations of Chevrolet: Phoenix, Astre, Sunbird, J-2000, T-1000, etc. Having lost its mojo, Pontiac also began endless self-conscious attempts to capture the BMW cachet, like with the original 1973 Grand Am.

Oddly enough, Pontiac’s last-ditch BMW-caricatures enjoyed a brief revival of interest during the mid-eighties. But the crowd that was paying (not very much) was not exactly a highly coveted demographic. As in this uncharitable description of the stereotypical driver of a (red) Grand Am: “a nail manicurist who lives in a trailer with an unemployed (former wrestler?) boyfriend”. Pontiac had become the Wal-Mart BMW. Be careful what you wish for.

Despite a few desperate last-ditch twitches induced by steroids smuggled in from Australia, Pontiac was tossed out of the ring for good. And the once-invincible GM tag team is desperately looking for signs of life among its few bloodied remaining members.

By on April 23, 2009

As GM’s journey to bankruptcy nears its conclusion, the punditocracy is busy contemplating the company’s afterlife. The current line of thinking: the feds will cleave General Motors in two. Bad GM gets Buick, GMC, HUMMER, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn. Good GM “buys” Chevrolet and Cadillac. It emerges from Chapter 11 unencumbered by outdated production facilities, warring management, befuddled marketing, over-priced labor, restrictive union work rules, astronomical pensions and onerous health care obligations. Chevillac rises from the ashes to steal share from both mainstream and luxury brands, repay its debts and thumb its nose at Bailout Nation’s critics. But here’s the thing: good GM is “saving” the wrong brands.

“What’s a Chevrolet?” branding guru Al Reis asks, rhetorically. “It’s a small or large cheap or expensive car, truck, SUV or sports car.” Reis has been sounding the alarm on Chevy’s branding for over twenty years, claiming the company lacks the focus it needs to survive in a market place with over 40 competitors.

So how could the liberated Chevrolet rebrand itself for success? “Get rid of the trucks,” Big Al suggests. “Take Chevy back to its roots. Make it what it was before Saturn arrived: an entry level car brand.”

Yes, well, what would distinguish this new Chevy from its competitors? Toyota owns reliability. Hyundai owns price. Nissan owns value. BMW owns driving pleasure. So. . . what? “It should be an American brand,” Reis says. Even if the cars are made somewhere else like, say, South Korea? “These days consumers don’t care where their products come from. Ralph Lauren’s clothing is made in China.”

When I push Reis for a unique selling point for Chevy, he hesitates. I can almost hear him shaking his head. “It’s too late to narrow its focus,” he says. “Other than appealing to patriotism, there isn’t anything left.”

I suppose Chevy could play the patriotic card, returning to the brand’s former “baseball, hotdogs and Chevrolet” appeal. It could even play off its taxpayer subsidy to assert itself as “America’s car company” (yes way). Chevrolet could offer comfortable, affordable and reliable American-styled sedans. Sort of like the groundbreaking Chrysler 300, only better.

Fine, but I doubt the US market would value four-wheeled flag waving enough to make Chevrolet profitable. Remember: Ralph Lauren’s WASPy brand ID convinces customers to pay a premium for his Chinese made apparel. If Chevy can’t charge a premium for these “all-American” products, it will have to compete on price with some of the world’s most efficient automakers. Why would the end result be any different than it is today?

Cadillac sits on the opposite end of the scale. As Lexus, Mercedes and Audi have proven, you don’t have to restrict yourself to one automotive genre to be a successful luxury automaker. But, like Chevy, like any car company, it’s all about the brand. The CTS may be as good as an equivalent BMW, but in this rarefied air, perception trumps product.

“If someone goes down to their golf club and says ‘I just bought a Cadillac,'” Reis says, “it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean you’ve made it.”

Restoring the Cadillac brand to the pinnacle of automotive desirability would require a multi-billion dollar investment in new products and an equally expensive marketing effort. At the same time, Cadillac would have to abandon its current willingness to maintain volumes with badge-engineered bling. Does Cadillac have the time/will/money to ditch/evolve their current lineup and make and promote the kind of world class cars that could reinvigorate the brand?

No.

Meanwhile, GM is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Buick, meh. But GMC is a strong brand that would gain strength the moment Chevy transfers all its SUVs and pickup trucks to the professional graders. Assuming the US economy recovers sometime before the next century, the pickup market will return. And after driving the Chevy Tahoe hybrid, I’m convinced there’s more room for the genre’s fuel efficiency, packaging, durability, safety, style, convenience, etc.

HUMMER may be the antithesis of President Obama’s vision of the American automobile’s future, but it’s an instantly recognizable brand. HUMMER’s underlying concept—SUV as survivalist’s enclave—still has resonance. Saturn has the touchy feely thing happening. It could be the home of green vehicles. American sports cars? Give Pontiac the Corvette, Solstice, Camaro and a performance brand is born. Saab could return to its roots an, uh, do whatever it is Saab used to do.

Alternatively, nothing. While resurrecting two or more of GM’s eight brands is doable, so is going to the moon. Judging from recent polls, Americans are more willing to fund lunar colonies than pour endless billions into GM.

That’s because they know that Uncle Sam isn’t “protecting ” or “investing” taxpayer’s money by subsidizing GM. They’re gambling on a loser. “GM has destroyed the equity of eight car brands,” Reis says. “You could almost say that’s what they do best.”

By on April 16, 2009

As TTAC’s Bailout Watch series heads for the initially improbable quingenta mark, it looks like the GM C11 naysayers are just about all nayed out. In his column, Detroit News Auto Editor Manny Lopez finally admits that a Chrysler/GM bankruptcy is . . . an option. Meanwhile, the self-styled AutoExtremist has thrown in the towel. In fact, Peter DeLorenzo now reckons GM is damaged beyond repair. A PR/marketing guy to the end, DeLorenzo has a solution: change GM’s name. “One hundred years of accomplishment and historic value to the American industrial fabric has been decimated in a matter of months. Once one of America’s corporate icons, GM has now been reduced to being a punchline for a running national joke, and this new car company will have to be unburdened of the GM name, pronto.” A matter of months? Clearly, DeLorenzo hasn’t been paying attention for the last decade or three.

GM isn’t the only one whose name is mud these days. Our neighbors to the north weren’t exactly thrilled when Chrysler told the Canadian Auto Workers to concede, the government to cough-up the bailout bucks or we’ll take our toys and go home. And now Ex-CEO Rick Wagoner stands accused of screwing GM’s Canadian subsidiary to secure taxpayer funding for his employer.

Bloomberg reports that “General Motors said it moved almost C$600 million ($495 million) from a Canadian unit to the U.S. [in March] as part of a deal with banks to strengthen U.S. operations and win government bailout money.”

Anyone remember when freshly-minted GM CEO Fritz Henderson announced the startling news that they didn’t have to draw down “extra” billions by the end of the month to keep the lights on? Apologists put it down to careful husbandry. Well, now we know the truth about GM’s sudden (if temporary) push away from the bailout buffet.

Of course, there’s the small matter of the bondholders left behind by GM’s run on the bank. And boy are THEY pissed.

Aurelius, Appaloosa and five other funds, who hold notes valued at 377 million pounds ($562 million), sued March 2 to have the money returned to the GM unit in Nova Scotia, which in 2003 issued the two series of notes.

The funds claim GM, the parent company, is either insolvent or on the brink of insolvency and knows it won’t be able to honor its obligation to the noteholders.

The parent company “has been or will be unjustly enriched at the expense” of Nova Scotia Finance and its creditors, the funds said.

See you in court? Hello? Chapter 11? Take a number and get in line, bud.

And join Pontiac and GMC dealers. Bloomberg also reports that “people familiar with the [federal] discussions” about GM’s train wreck say that the Pontiac and GMC may/will/might/could get the axe. This as GM’s “Savings Push Deepens.” It has to be asked: Fritz, do you like it like this?

GM’s spinmeisters responded to Bloomberg‘s Wild Ass Rumor with the kind of openness you’d expect from federal employees. “We are continuing to assess our global operations, brand portfolio and nameplates, and will take further actions to more aggressively restructure our business,” Renee Rashid-Merem, a GM spokeswoman, said yesterday. “It’s premature to comment on what those actions could entail.”

GM is talking muy macho for a company about to enter the Mother of All C11s. Ford, on the other hand, is talking softly and offering its dealers a big shtick.

The Detroit News curmudgeon Daniel Howes has finally broken radio silence to reveal that The Blue Oval Boyz have sent their dealers $1K in conquest cash with which to lure fleeing GM and Chrysler customers.

“Domestic intenders for Chrysler and GM have been defecting to Ford and Lincoln Mercury products in great numbers since the beginning of the year,” Amanda DeMouthe, marketing manager for Ford’s Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington regions, wrote dealers in an internal memo.

“And as media continues to speculate on the possibility of bankruptcy, those defections will surely continue. Please be sure your teams are aware of this new incentive. It is stackable with Customer Cash, Bonus Cash and 0% APR!”

You want domestic metal cheap? You know where to go. As Mr. Howes reminds us, it remains to be seen if FoMoCo can avoid the same fate awaiting General Motors at the hands of the feds. Meanwhile, everyone even remotely connected with Chrysler and GM is getting hammered, or is about to get hammered.

“Customers ask that question almost every day and they expect you to give the cars away because they say you’re in bankruptcy or soon will be,” New York Chrysler dealer Jonathan Grant tells our Mr. Howes. “This thing’s like a cloud that is hanging over us.”

By on April 14, 2009

The New York Times reports that hecklers are verbally assaulting GM’s booth babes at the New York Auto Show. Worse, the glamor girls are wearing last year’s dresses. Literally. This is not what you’d call death with dignity. This is GM on federal life support, drooling and soiling itself uncontrollably as it waits and waits and waits for someone somewhere to pull the damn plug already. As I’ve asserted in the past few episodes of this series, I no longer believe GM can be revived. The company is brain dead. No matter what cancerous parts of The General’s terminally ill body Uncle Sam’s surgeons separate from the corporate body, GM can’t function as an independent entity. Chevrolet and Cadillac? Building what? For whom? At what profit? Both of those brands are money losers losing market share right now. They may have volume but they ain’t got game. Of course, that’s not going to stop the feds from trying to revive GM. And boy, are they—I mean “we”—going to piss away a LOT of money.

In 37 days the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) will force GM to file for Chapter 11. A friendly bankruptcy judge will then split the artist formerly known as “the world’s largest automaker” into “good” GM and “bad” GM. “Good” meaning a new(ish) American carmaker, freed from a mountain of debt, pesky union contracts, health care obligations, pensions, unprofitable brands, outdated factories, commitments to Delphi, etc. “Bad” as in all that worthless NSFW piled into one place, where the creditors can squabble with each other over its worth until death do them part.

This the PTFOA will do in the name of jobs, jobs, jobs. Or, more accurately, finding a way to support GM with [your] federal tax money without completely alienating the 70 plus percent of Americans who are against supporting GM with [their] federal tax money.

Politically, the split makes sense—but only if the US government takes an equity position in the “new” GM. See? We didn’t throw billions of dollars worth of your hard-earned money down a rathole. We used it to help GM rise Phoenix-like from the ashes. It’s an investment. Uncle Sam gets to make a new cake and eat it too because GM’s current U.S. Treasury loans (call it $22.8 billion) are secured, backed by all of GM’s assets, including the assets owned by its subsidiaries.

The Fed’s claim on GM is junior only to the existing, secured, revolving credit facility (a pittance at about $5 billion). I repeat: GM’s federal loans are senior to all GM’s creditors, including the retiree trust claims (around $27 billion), GM bondholders ($29 billion) and the trade payables owed to suppliers ($22 billion).

Moving forward, leaving all of those “stakeholders” behind, “good” GM is looking for another $22 billion from the Treasury to fund its future operations. Oh, and an additional $6.6 billion to develop energy efficient vehicles and $6 billion from foreign governments. If Santa leaves all these presents under GM’s Christmas tree, all of this new money would ALSO be senior to existing unsecured creditors, ahead of payments to bondholders, the retiree trust and creditors.

Again, in exchange for their largesse, US (and foreign) taxpayers get a stake in the new, relatively unencumbered “Good” GM. The Treasury Department converts all of its current and upcoming senior secured debt into  junior preferred stock. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, American Leyland.

Here’s the worst part: what if it doesn’t work? What if the PTFOA puts the paddles on the new, cancer-free GM and the patient fails to revive? I mean, if consumers are ignoring, eschewing and even heckling “old” GM, why does anyone think that “new” GM will recover or even maintain life-sustaining market share?

To pull that one off, Chevillac would have to steal customers from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Ford, Mercedes, BMW, Infiniti, Audi, Lexus and all the rest. In five years, maybe. Short term? No NSFWing way. Damaged brands, damaged company. And if this American Leyland plan bites the dust, all of that preferred stock will be completely, 100 percent worthless.

Alternatively, the PTFOA could put GM into Chapter 7 and let someone try to make a go of whatever bits are make-a-go-able. And if politics demand it, Uncle Sam could spend that $34.6 billion worth of additional funds sending every UAW worker and supplier employee and Detroit-area pump jockey a big fat check.

Assuming (as we must) that common sense has nothing to do with this, the flip side is the really scary bit. What are the feds willing to do to “protect” their (your) investment in GM? As the “investment” gets larger, so does the pressure to make sure it doesn’t fail. The PTFOA has already fired GM’s CEO, gelded its Board of Bystanders and manipulated the bailout bill to send the automaker tens of thousands of sales. What’s next?

Whatever it is, you can bet it won’t benefit the American consumer.

By on April 6, 2009

GM’s new CEO took to the airwaves on Sunday. If industry watchers had any doubts that Fritz Henderson is cut from the same cloth as his discredited, defenestrated predecessor, Henderson’s appearance on Meet The Press removed them. Like Rick Wagoner before him, Henderson’s facile, vague and evasive responses—re: the epic train wreck known as General Motors—revealed the full genius of the Talking Heads’ lyricists. “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything,” David Gregory forgot to interject. Alternatively, we could make this Churchillian: Never have so few said so little about so much. Even so, OMG.

There, on national TV, GM CEO Fritz Henderson showed the world (and GM customers) that he’s a craven corporate spinmeister. While trying to reassure everyone about everything, he singularly failed to reassure anyone about anything. In both tone and content, Henderson showed the wisdom of rule number one in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: “get a job in a big firm.”

What GM needs is a CEO who can create root and branch reform. What they got is a man who went out of his way to tell denizens of GM’s poisonous corporate culture that not a single ass is in any danger of being kicked.

No surprise there. Red Ink Rick Wagoner’s hand-picked successor is a caretaker CEO, elevated to his promised position through primogeniture, rather than any talent for crisis management. As planned.

The Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) knew they were going to fire Rick Wagoner before the Treasury Department assigned them email accounts. Steve Rattner and friends had plenty of time to find a Mulally-like outsider ready, willing and able to triage GM ahead of, in the midst of, and after bankruptcy. Clearly, that’s not what the PTFOA wanted. What they wanted was what they got: a patsy.

Henderson is nothing more or less than a powerless placeholder. As the representative of “old” broken ass General Motors, the company’s new CEO is free to tell his company’s new masters how to run the terminally ill automaker. Henderson can advise the PTFOA which national and international brands should survive the forthcoming cull. He can nominate the new product mix. Anything. But the moment Henderson’s recommendations clash with the will of the people, the PTFOA can (and will) turn to him and say “What the fuck do YOU know about it?”

Which is both true and deeply worrying.

Suffice it to say, we could ask the PTFOA the same question with even LESS chance of a satisfactory answer. Although the majority of their members drive foreign cars, the task force has no more idea about successful automotive design, branding, marketing and sales than GM’s current management. If TTAC’s Best and Brightest are still arguing how to “save” GM, what chance do a bunch of politically appointed ex-journalists, lawyers and professional bureaucrats have?

Never mind. Despite their ignorance over industry matters, Barack’s automotive army is large and in charge. And they aim to keep it that way. Surrender power over GM’s fate to a new, independent, charismatic CEO? No way. Not yet, anyway. Not until the Treasury men have done whatever it is they need to do (they’ll figure that out as they go) to “protect the taxpayer.” Oh, and save the planet.

Yes, there is that. Pundits who read the PTFOA’s excoriation of GM’s vaporware Volt mistake the quango’s criticism of a tree-hugging Hail Mary as recognition that GM has to, you know, sell something that people want to buy—even if it’s not an electric car.

Wrong. President Obama’s base demands federal intervention within the evil, electric car killing industry. The feds must reduce global warming, eliminate SUVs and generally get American consumers to do the right thing, whether they want to or not. Believing that PTFOA have subsumed the president’s political agenda to the gods of ROI is, at best, naïve.

As Henderson’s appointment reveals, as the increasing chatter about a “quick” (i.e., non-judicial) bankruptcy indicates, the PTFOA are ensuring that THEY will decide which bits constitute the new, healthy “good” GM, and which bits are shunted into the old, “bad” GM. “Good” as in environmentally and union-friendly, built wherever supportive votes may live (think defense industry). “Bad” as in anything that isn’t environmentally and union-friendly, built outside fertile Democratic voting territory.

It won’t work. At this point, I can’t see GM emerging from bankruptcy as a lean, mean organization, building [at least] two brands’ worth of world class, competitive products.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the PTFOA will eventually step aside for the next presidential proxy. Maybe he’ll be the savvy kick ass CEO GM needs to survive. Until then, Henderson. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich said, change is traumatic. We ain’t seen nothing yet. Then again, maybe we have.

By on April 3, 2009

I view the government’s intervention in GM’s business (or lack thereof) as automotive ebola. But we can all agree on one thing: the president’s decision to fire GM CEO Rick Wagoner was a no-brainer. Giving the Harvard MBA and GM lifer millions of dollars to guide GM to viability was like letting Al-Qaeda run a liberal arts university. Now that Wagoner’s gone, his supporters are notable by their absence. That’s because deep-sixing Red Ink Rick was the right thing to do. It was also the easy thing to do. While the MSM is lionizing Steve Rattner, the head of the presidential quango that defenestrated the GM CEO, the Obama administration’s wallow in the GM quagmire is just beginning.

There is no longer any doubt that GM is headed for bankruptcy. The GM C11 gestalt is growing by the day, of which there are only 56 left. The question is no longer “if” GM will file but “how.” Yesterday, GM’s federally elevated Chairman of the Board, Kent Kresa, signed his name to a plan unofficially called “Good GM, Bad GM.” In this scenario, the government would split GM into two companies, “old” (bad) and “new” (good). GM’s best bits would become part of the unencumbered business. The remaining dreck would be sold or liquidated.

It’s a good idea—in theory. Separating the potentially profitable wheat from the same old chaff would be a relatively rapid way to reinvent the American icon. But there’s a good reason why this practice isn’t the norm: someone’s got to decide which part of GM is Michael Knight and which part’s his evil twin Garth.

In a normal bankruptcy, management creates a recovery plan. A federal judge (or judges) rules on the plan, and then oversees its execution. The judge can demand forensic accounts, call witnesses, order asset sales, protect assets, etc. Yes, yes, Delphi; the former GM parts maker that’s been in Judge Robert Drain’s bankruptcy court since the late Pleistocene era. But that doesn’t obviate the main advantage of a judicial bankruptcy process: someone without an axe to grind has the power to make sure that creditors and other “stakeholders” aren’t screwed.

Lest we forget, GM is [still] a vast, sprawling enterprise, with thousands of dealers, suppliers, workers and former workers. Both here and abroad. All dependent on various parts of GM’s business for their survival. A triage-trained bankruptcy judge decides the least bad options for all concerned.

Now imagine the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) deciding which bits of GM fall into the “good” (life) or “bad” (death) column.

First of all, the separation poses a huge philosophical conundrum. What is the new GM and why? If you subscribe to the theory that Chevrolet and Cadillac are the only GM brands worth saving, what of GMC, which accounts for a large chunk of GM’s truck biz? Kill or consolidate?

Viability means profitability, which requires both situational awareness and dedication to a specific competitive advantage (a.k.a. a unique selling point). The PTFOA’s recent report said the money-making GM of the future would build and sell reliable, practical, safe and fuel efficient vehicles. Must. Choose. One. Oh, and WTH does any of that have to do with Cadillac?

Secondly, on a more practical level, holy shit. GM has assets all over the world, with enough overlap to keep bean counters busy for decades (as it has). So which vehicles will these “good” brands sell, and where will they be made? Will the new GM only build vehicles in the U.S.? Given that some of the best/most profitable GM products are fabricated outside of the United States, an America-first approach would put the “good” GM at a huge competitive disadvantage.

Which, of course, leads us to the most important thumbs-up, thumbs-down consideration of all: politics. In a judge’s case, there is no political consideration. He or she is beholden to no single constituency. In contrast, the PTFOA. Anyone who thinks that this politically appointed body will be ready, willing and able to set aside partisan politics to look after the taxpayer’s best financial interest is woefully naive.

If nothing else, we’ve not heard the last of the United Auto Workers (UAW). So far, the union’s done all that they could do to “help” GM: nothing (i.e. no major concessions). The next step: make sure the PTFOA looks after UAW members’ interests in the pre-pack process. And while that’s happening, political markers are already being called in. How many pols with a GM factory in their jurisdiction have PTFOA boss Timothy Geithner in their sights? I’m thinking . . . all of them.

So here’s my idea: the PTFOA calls in GM’s federal loans. GM files for Chapter 11 protection. A bankruptcy judge does his or her thing. The feds (that’s you and me) provide debtor-in-possession financing (I’d prefer C7 but no one asked me). Fair enough?

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