Editorial: Bailout Watch 257: Now What? (Part One)

editorial bailout watch 257 now what part one

Between 1848 and 1852 telegraph line miles in the US increased by more than 1000 percent. By 1860, most of the companies that laid those lines were gone. The telegraph did not disappear, but the market for cable unraveled. Now that the CEOs of GM, Chrysler and Ford have sent a collective SOS to Congress, its relevant to step back and look not at the now, but the whole. The cycle’s called boom-bubble-bust. Not, bailout. Put another way, what kind of market does Detroit expect to find on the other end of their bridge loans?

As I’ve argued here before, this decade’s early average of 16.9m new vehicles sold per year was the result of cheap and easy credit. From 2001 to 2003, the Federal Reserve cut the funds rate from 3.5 percent to one percent. The lowest since the 1950s. Low-cost, low-security loans flooded the marketplace, inflating the housing market like a rented bouncy house. The automobile business poached off the same line of credit.

For most of the 00s, credit flowed like champagne at a Ritz reception. The car buying climate was the best it had ever been in history. Combined with relatively inexpensive gasoline, the market for cars and trucks grew to full bloom.

Between 2000 and 2006, the number of licensed drivers grew by 1.1 percent. Car sales went up six percent over the same period, outpacing anyone’s expectations. In 1998, there were about 12m more vehicles than drivers. In 2006, we bought 34m extras. During this same period, median household income, adjusted for inflation, inched up only three percent.

So, the population didn’t boom and there wasn’t a huge influx of disposable income. During the first half of this decade, people were not picking-up new rides based on need. That’s called a bubble, as in dot-com bubble or real estate bubble or any of a number of other past pop hits. Yes, there’s always a pop.

“We had above-trend years, some of which was caused by an incredible growth in household net wealth that later we found wasn’t real,” George Pipas, director of sales analysis and reporting for Ford Motor told BusinessWeek.

Bob Schnorbus, chief economist with J.D. Power & Associates added, “It’s going to take us many years to get back to a trend level of sales, let alone the levels you might hope to see.”

The boom-bubble-bust cycle is actually pretty common. It afflicted the telegraph industry, railroads, baseball cards. It’s surprising more auto industry executives didn’t see it coming-– or at least acknowledge its arrival. Even ultra-conservative Toyota ramped-up truck capacity as the bottom was falling out of the market. Still, as long-time TTAC readers know, this downturn isn’t some kind of alien invasion. Lots of people shouted duck and cover.

Michael Mandel, at BusinessWeek, reported on the bubble in 2004. He reminds us on his blog, “Moreover, I also noted that the popping of the auto bubble could have harsher economic consequences than the end of the widely discussed housing bubble.”

Demand for all vehicles has contracted greatly, worldwide, in the last quarter. Current numbers are almost certainly an extreme. To where, exactly, the market may bounce back is not clear. A rough consensus of forcasters puts us at 16 million vehicles by 2012. Maybe.

That leaves the U.S. with excess auto production capacity. It’s that excess capacity they’re asking Congress to prop-up.

It can’t be sustained. A third of the auto industry workers across the country are stuck in a Warner Bros. cartoon. The floor’s been blown out– they just haven’t fallen just yet.

In the end, bailing-out Detroit isn’t so much the issue. What is the market going to look like for the next handful of years? Are GM, Ford and Chrysler prepared for it? Are they, in fact, able to turn, flex and shift with the economy? A market becomes more competitive as it shrinks.

We didn’t bailout the hat-blocking industry back in 1960. There wasn’t much of a point. The market changed. The car market isn’t evaporating, but changes are in the works. If people’s tastes turn resolutely to more efficient vehicles, if people hang on to their iron a lot longer to avoid a financial inquisition (and resulting interest), if people flat-out can’t get a loan and decide to take the bike or bus (transit ridership is up 5.1 percent for the year), then money from Congress is feeding a ghost.

Western Union is still around. They don’t send telegrams. Bubbles can’t be re-blown.

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  • Eric_Stepans Eric_Stepans on Dec 07, 2008

    One of the problems with a special-interest site like TTAC is that many of the participants don't see the "bigger picture" Amtrak? Railroad workers make UAW types look like Chicago school economists. The Amtrak workers contract calls for 2+ years of severance if there’s a layoff. NY State is currently investigating a scam where retired LIRR employees were scamming disabiltiy AND pension payments to almost $100K/year. And how does that scam compare to the scams perpetrated by Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, Long-Term Capital Management, Citigroup, AIG, the $9 billion+ in cash that was just "misplaced" in Iraq, etc.? Is there a transportation solution to replace the domestic auto industry? Yes. It’s Honda, Toyota, Nissan, etc, etc… And what happens to them when Denso, Magna, American Axle, etc. all go under because GM/Ford/Chrysler don't pay their bills? What happens to demand for automobiles (and everything else) in the US when another 3 million people end up unemployed? What happens to the banking bailout when yet more people can't pay their mortgages because they no longer have jobs? I understand the resentment people have that the Big 2.8724 management have been screw-ups for decades and now come begging to be saved from themselves. I understand bailout fatigue. I even (kind of) understand the resentment so many have for the UAW (I think it's horribly misplaced, but I understand it...). What I don't understand is the 'cut off my nose to spite my face' attitude people have about making what is already the worst recession the US has had since the Great Depression even worse.

  • Geeber Geeber on Dec 08, 2008
    Eric_Stepans: And how does that scam compare to the scams perpetrated by Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, Long-Term Capital Management, Citigroup, AIG, the $9 billion+ in cash that was just “misplaced” in Iraq, etc.? You're mixing apples, oranges and bananas. Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, Long-Term Capital Management, Citigroup and AIG were all investor-owned corporations. Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) are government-owned and operated - the first by the federal government, the second by New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The money "missing" in Iraq was originally a federal government appropriation. The "scams" perpetrated by the privately owned corporations ultimately brought their downfall. The free market worked - except when government felt the need to intervene and save someone from a bad decision. And please note that having a bad business plan is not synonomous with a scam. There will be little, if any, incentive for such correction with Amtrak and the LIRR, because they are guaranteed government support no matter what, and their leadership is appointed by the controlling government authority, which means that it is politically connected. And the missing money in Iraq speaks for itself...although, like a lot of people who may disagree with the current administration, you may convince yourself that once your side is in charge, things bill be different. Given what I've seen of GM's and Chrysler's "plans" for recovery, any bailout money we give them is as likely to become as AWOL as that money missing in Iraq. Eric_Stepans: And what happens to them when Denso, Magna, American Axle, etc. all go under because GM/Ford/Chrysler don’t pay their bills? Then maybe the PROFITABLE companies that rely on them will step in and help them survive if they are so important. Eric_Stepans: What happens to demand for automobiles (and everything else) in the US when another 3 million people end up unemployed? So....these people will be unemployed forever? They will never get another job? No past recession has ever ended? And the 3 million figure is highly suspect...I wouldn't rely on any estimate from the auto makers and the UAW. Eric_Stepans: What I don’t understand is the ‘cut off my nose to spite my face’ attitude people have about making what is already the worst recession the US has had since the Great Depression even worse. Study the history of the Great Depression...part of what made it the GREAT Depression was actions by Hoover and then Roosevelt designed to prevent what was inevitable. The simple facts are these: GM and Chrysler are not sustainable in their current form. Period, end of story. They were barely profitable in the artificially inflated market of the 2000s. Chrysler needs to go away, with the foreigners picking up the valuable parts (Jeep, Dodge Ram, minivans). GM needs to shrink until it can service about 15 percent of the market without relying on heavy fleet sales and hefty incentives. That means dealers, divisions and workers (both white-collar and blue-collar workers) need to be shed. Anything that prevents this from happening will only prolong the agony. The concern over the bailout is that the money will be used just to do that - prevent what is needed from happening, because what is needed is unacceptable to both the dealer groups and the UAW.

  • Dave M. I will say this generation styling has grown on me; previously I thought the Fiat version was far better looking. Miatas have always been pure joy to drive.
  • Kendahl A Tesla feature has been free, periodic, over-the-air, software updates that add new features or improve existing ones. Owners brag that their x-year-old car is better today, because of the updates, than it was brand new. Will Tesla start charging for these updates after a few years? Teslas hold their value very well. I suspect losing free updates will do serious damage to that.
  • BklynPete When I was a kid, the joke about Nissan choosing the name Datsun goes like this:Nissan execs were uncomfortable with the World War 2 connotations of their name in the North American market. Seeing how successful VW was over here, they went to VW's most-recent German ad agency. The Japanese told the Germans they needed a new name. The Germans agreed. They asked the Nissan execs when they wanted a review of potential names. The execs said two weeks. The German ad people said, "dat soon?"I will be crucified.
  • Kendahl Modern cars are better mechanically in every way compared to cars from the 1960s. But, and my age is probably showing here, the older ones are prettier.
  • Master Baiter I like the references to Red Barchetta. My fun car is a spiritual cousin to this Miata: 2001 BMW M Roadster--green with tan leather; five speed.