General Motors Death Watch 60: Bankruptcy is Good for the Soul
It's official: bankruptcy is good for GM. In their recent ass-covering exercise for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), The Ford Motor Company listed 'adverse effects from the bankruptcy or insolvency of a major competitor' as a significant risk to its financial future. Translation: if GM goes bankrupt, The General will slough off its excessive labor costs and become… wait for it… competitive. So competitive, in fact, that Ford reckons GM's products would gain an important price advantage. Well how about that?
Obviously, there's more to it than that. Ford's SEC filing also alerts investors that GM's Chapter 11 could destroy The Blue Oval's supply chain. Both automakers share a large number of mission critical parts suppliers; if GM's submersion sucks vital parts makers into bankruptcy– which it most assuredly would– Ford will lose access to the bits and pieces it needs to build Fords. In fact, it's hard to see how Ford could survive a GM bankruptcy. Or why it would want to. The automotive community is slowly (and quietly) beginning to conclude that bankruptcy is both the only thing and the BEST thing that can happen to GM, and, by extension, Ford.
To review: GM can't build competitive vehicles at a profit. It's got too many models, brands and dealers. Too much bureaucracy, waste and inefficiency. Its labor costs are too high, its capital investment is too low and its supply chain is about to snap. And GM can't change a thing. The United Auto Workers' contract prevents any wage or benefits cuts, and precludes any alteration to their Byzantine working practices. Legal obligations also stop GM from trimming its distended dealer network or euthanizing fatally wounded brands. To survive, GM needs to lower its costs and revamp its business. And it can't do that without Chapter 11.
Oh, OK, it could, if everyone pulled together: investors, management, unions, dealers, suppliers and customers. But they won't. It's not in their nature. And even if it was, GM CEO Rabid Rick Wagoner is singularly incapable of tackling this monumental leadership challenge. And even if Rabid Rick could unify all the negatively charged particles in the GM universe, it's too late. The General doesn't have enough cash to weather the turbulence between business-as-usual and the end result of a difficult and dangerous overhaul. Nobody's going to give them the extra money– at least until The General declares bankruptcy. As Ford publicly acknowledged, only bankruptcy can give GM the wiggle room it needs to implement necessary changes to the way it goes about its business.
So be it. As I said at the beginning of this odious odyssey, GM will emerge from this multi-decade debacle a smaller, leaner and better automaker or, preferably, automakers. And that's why Ford's worried. Of course, they're not the only ones. The prospect of revolutionary change is making everyone involved a little, well, crazy. We're already seeing some strange behavior emerge from GM World: a public pledge to end national incentives followed by the announcement of a "March madness" sale, exciting new cars playing one-two-three green light, red light, green light; a Board Member and Car Czar squabbling over a moribund Swedish car brand, etc. It's the End of Days, Detroit style.
As GM's fate reaches its terrifying conclusion, workers will get all the attention. The moment the axe falls, whether by a slow strike or a lightning default, the spotlight will shift to "the little guy." Needless to say, the media will depict them as victims. They'll highlight the most desperate cases and blame their fate on management incompetence, outsourcing, the Japanese, the Chinese, foreign trade policy, currency manipulation, oil prices, George W. Bush, the anti-GM press, anyone and anything other than the workers themselves. Never mind that a huge number of these workers performed two hours work for eight hours pay. Never mind that thousands were willing to receive full pay and benefits for doing nothing whatsoever. It will always be someone else's fault.
Understand this: GM's workers are no better or worse than any of the other players in this sad saga. All of them work for a company where personal responsibility doesn't exist. Where everyone thinks they deserve to be well-paid, no matter what they or the company does, or doesn't do. Yes, there are plenty of good people within GM. And here's the kicker: most of them can't wait for the company to file. They want to see an end to the waste, laziness, greed, corruption, inequality and stupidity they see around them. When GM becomes the world's largest bankrupt, these good men and women will be satisfied, knowing that there is justice in the world. And they'll be hopeful; that something good will replace something bad.
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