Chrysler Suicide Watch 32: Slumlords

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
chrysler suicide watch 32 slumlords

It’s getting close to the first anniversary of Chrysler going to the dog. While there’ve been job cuts and “market adjustments,” the shoes are still hanging. Chrysler is still a long way from being profitable. But it appears to be an equally long way from breakup. What exactly is planned? The truth may be that Cerberus isn't “planning” so much as “waiting.”

For Cerberus, buying Chrysler was a gamble. As you’d expect from New York money men, they did several things to “stack the deck.” First, they got the company for a song (under seven and a half billion) with some working capital included. More importantly, they took the automaker private. With no shareholders to whine about dividends, no “captain Kirks” to try to swing a takeover, Cerberus can afford to take the long view. And the long view says… go public. Or strip and flip. Either way, now’s not the time.

Cerberus’ holding pattern has less to do with ChryCo’s declining fortunes than OTHER carmakers’ declining fortunes. In other words, you can’t flip a company without a flipee. The current U.S. automotive market leaves very few players flush with cash, looking for an American dance partner. And those that are, aren’t. Splitting-up Chrysler’s assets is the only realistic alternative, and that idea poses involves many of the same issues.

At the moment, Jeep is only spinnable hunk of Chrysler. (No surprise there; Jeep’s had more “partners” than the widow next door.) Jeep is the only part of Cerberus’ entire car making operations with a positive cash-flow. While the profits aren’t enormous, the brand’s “trail-ratings” carry enough cachet to allow big mark-ups on simple vehicles.

There are several problems with Cerberus selling Jeep sooner rather than later. First, while Jeep’s hard-core fan base is less (more?) affected by fashion than most, SUVs are not the flavor of the month. The new U.S. federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regulations are in flux, awaiting clarification and California-compliance (or not). In any case, whatever Cerberus could get for Jeep now pales is comparison to what Jeep would be worth in a hot, relatively settled market.

Next and again, who’d buy Jeep? With credit in short supply, a US-market outsider would have trouble stumping-up the dough to snag it. And those foreign firms that could afford Jeep (BMW, Toyota, Honda, etc.) either already have off-road products or don’t want them. VW is busy. Daimler is sitting in the corner, grinning.

Renault/Nissan is the only like foreign suitor— only they aren’t. Carlos Ghosn may make noises about mergers, but there ARE limits. And lest we forget, NONE of the imports are brave/stupid enough to buy a unionized company, bringing the (free!) Trojan horse through the gates. Domestically, Ford just sold Land Rover. And although GM has decades of experience cannibalizing itself, even RenCen knows it doesn’t need Hummer AND Jeep.

Besides, what would Cerberus do with the rest of the company after they stripped-out the only part anyone wants? China is often named as a potential buyer, but even for pennies on the dollar for U.S. production capacity and access to thousands of dealers, they’d see Chrysler as the financial sinkhole that it is.

No matter how much— or more likely little— Cerberus made from a larger Chrysler breakup, it could be the volte face that launches a thousand lawsuits. Shuttering Oldsmobile cost GM billions; the General’s terminal brand wasn’t a fraction the size of Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep (never mind the three brands combined). Filing for bankruptcy and THEN selling off the bits would mitigate Cerberus’ legal risk, but it’s hardly a profitable exit strategy. If nothing else, Chapter 11 would decimate the brands’ street value.

As I stated at the beginning, any fool knows that Chrysler is a long, long way from profitability. But who said anything about profitability (other than me)? Cerberus doesn’t have to “build equity;” they don’t have to justify their decisions to institutional shareholders. Think of Chrysler as a slum landlord who bought a building on the cheap awaiting a buyout offer and you begin to get the picture.

Watch as Chrysler reins-in R&D while “consolidating” dealers (i.e. watching them die). This viewpoint explains “quicker than quick” Chrysler’s strange reluctance to cut vehicle lines that everybody (but their few remaining buyers) know are dead in the water. The superabundance of product forces dealers to go tits up, and leave their proverbial apartments.

Remember: Cerberus is in this to make money, not to “save Chrysler.” They need to get their $8b back, plus a little extra (Daimler holds 19.9 percent). To do that, all they have to do is run the business into the ground. When the time comes to “sell Jeep, liquidate the rest,” Chrysler’s corporate coffers will be conveniently bare (or pretty close). The lawyers can fight over the bones. And the “dog” will have had its day.

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2 of 28 comments
  • Steven Lang Steven Lang on Mar 30, 2008

    At the risk of making this a geo-political discussion, I'll hold back on the last few interesting comments although there's a part of me that would love to have talk about em' over lunch. I'll say this about Chrysler. It WILL go bankrupt and it WILL happen within the next two years. After that it's pretty much anyone's guess. As an aside, anyone who spends serious time at the dealer auctions has seen the fantastic degradation of their product. From 2004 onward they have been on such a terrible decline that nothing within the realm of reality could have saved them. I still blame Daimler... chances are they would have been the healthiest one of the 2.8 if the morons at Mercedes didn't drastically cut their R&D budget and neglect to share any of the platforms or parts bin materials that were sorely needed.

  • on Apr 03, 2008

    Basically Cerebus was paid by MB to take Chrysler off their hands so they would take it through Bankruptcy and kill the Unions. Remember they hired Neutron Bomb (kills people and leave buildings) Nardelli to come in to do what present management could not. Jim Press is to make it appear like they are trying. Nardelli already stated they are going to sell off Real Estate that Chrysler owns. Approximately $1.4 billion worth. Goodbye proving grounds! Remember the Carlsbad design facility was shut down. If Cerebus can't wrestle this beast as its mythical name suggests they will sell it to an Indian company. Tata and Mahindra are very capable of buying it. Tons of companies in India are awash in prive equity. Tata is shopping; they bought a Dutch steel company for 12.2 billion and now land rover and Jaguar for a a mere 2.3 billion, while saying they will invest $1.5-3 billion in capital investments (expanding production for one).

  • Del My father bought GM cars in the 60's, but in 1971 he gave me a used Datsun (as they were called back then), and I'm now in my 70's and am happy to say that GM has been absent from my entire adult life. This article makes me gladder than ever.
  • TheEndlessEnigma That's right GM, just keep adding to that list of reasons why I will never buy your products. This, I think, becomes reason number 69, right after OnStar-Cannot-Be-Disabled-And-It-Comes-Standard-Whether-Or-Not-You-Want-It and Screw-You-American-Car-Buyer-We-Only-Make-Trucks-And-SUVs.
  • 3SpeedAutomatic Does this not sound and feel like the dawn of ICE automobiles in the early 20th century, but at double or triple speed speed!!There were a bunch of independent car markers by the late 1910’s. By the mid 20’s, we were dropping down to 10 or 15 producers as Henry was slashing the price of the Model T. The Great Depression hit, and we are down to the big three and several independents. For EVs, Tesla bolted out of the gate, the small three are in a mad dash to keep up. Europe was caught flat footed due to the VW scandal. Lucid, Lordstown, & Rivian are scrambling to up production to generate cash. Now the EV leader has taken a page from the Model T and is slashing prices putting the rest of the EV market in a tail spin. Deja vu……
  • Michael Eck With those mods, I wonder if it's tuned...
  • Mike-NB2 I'm not a Jeep guy, but I really, really like the 1978 Jeep Cherokee 4xe concept.