The Chrysler Coincidence: Bailout Loan-Shuffle To Help Fund Fiat Takeover

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Back in November of 2009, when GM announced that it would repay its government loans, it didn’t take much investigation to realize that The General was simply shuffling government money from one pocket to the other and that true “payback” was still a ways off. The New York Times asked me to write an op-ed on the subject, and I took the opportunity to point out the reality of the situation and note

G.M.’s global interests are far too diverse for it to serve its taxpayer owners faithfully, and it can’t afford to subjugate its business prerogatives to the political needs of its major shareholder in the White House. So, unless Americans develop a sudden obsession with G.M.’s $40,000 Volt electric car just in time for an I.P.O., taxpayers will be stuck with tens of billions of dollars in losses.

Afterward, while our government contemplates its runaway deficit and getting rid of its 8 percent of Chrysler’s equity, perhaps we’ll get an admission that General Motors still owes the American people. Without one, the relationship between the public and the automaker, and the Obama administration as well, may never be the same.

And now that our government finds itself “contemplating a runaway deficit and getting rid of its 8 percent of Chrysler’s equity,” would you believe that a similar federal money-shuffle is under way? Believe it.

In today’s Automotive News [sub], Fiat sources are talking about the Italian automaker raising its stake in Chrysler from 30% to 46% by this June, with one source saying

that “it is technically possible” for Fiat to get to 46 percent of Chrysler by June. Whether Fiat raises its Chrysler stake depends on how talks with the banks turn out.

The “talks with the banks” bit refers to Fiat’s negotiations with international banks in order to refinance some part of its $7.4b debt to the US and Canadian governments. After all, until Fiat reduces its bailout-related deb, the US Treasury won’t allow it to own more tof Chrysler’s equity. Philippe Houchois, head of European auto research at UBS in London explains:

There is a lot of flexibility in the contract to achieve control of Chrysler, so Fiat could exercise its 16 percent call option if it reduces the loans to below $4 billion

Which means Fiat needs at least $3.5b of its $7.4b debt to be refinanced by a private bank. Pay attention because here’s where it gets interesting: according to the Detroit Free Press, there’s one major issue that apparently affects Chrysler’s ability to refinance its government debt: whether or not it gets more government debt.

Fiat, which effectively took control of Chrysler in 2009 and now has a 30% stake in the company, is in discussions with major banks and the government for the refinancing.

Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has said that the Department of Energy loan is a crucial part of those discussions.

The Freep story goes on to explain that the DOE loan program, which GM recently dropped out of and t he GAO recently lambasted, had its budget reduced but that Chrysler’s pending loan request will not be affected. It also reveals that Chrysler recently reduced its loan request in light of the program’s funding issues, from $8.55b to… you guessed it, $3.5b. That’s right, the exact same amount of money that it needs to pay back to the US and Canadian governments in order for Fiat to up its stake to 46%.

Now, technically the DOE loan program is supposed to be used for specific, qualifying retooling projects, so Fiat can’t literally take the DOE money and use it to pay back the government loans. But freeing up $3.5b in capital that would otherwise be spent on retooling with low-cost loans will make it infinitely easier for Chrysler to secure the $3.5b in debt refinancing it needs. And, in light of the GAO’s pointed criticisms of the DOE loan program’s fairness and transparency, it’s hard to overlook the coincidental nature of Chrysler’s need for $3.5b and the government’s allocation of extra funds to apparently guarantee a low cost loan to Chrysler for precisely the same amount. After all, we’ve seen this movie before…

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  • Chris DeMorro Chris DeMorro on Apr 15, 2011

    Say what you want about the whole loan mess...our government regularly gives away billions of dollars to foreign interests, whether it be weapons for Libyan rebels or flying rescue operations off the coast of Japan (yeah that stuff ain't free.) If GM and/or Chrysler went down, you're talking about hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of businesses no longer contributing to the tax base. I still think Fiat, not Chrysler, is getting the shaft in the deal by taking control of an automaker that has shuffled hands a buncha times in the last three decades. Chrysler it seems is toxic, and anybody who wants to get involved in the Pentastar is taking a huge risk (just ask Cerberus, or Daimler, or Renault.) Finally, there is the simple fact that these are loans. With interest rates. That GM and Chrysler/Fiat are obligated to pay back. The stronger GM and Chrysler/Fiat can get, the more likely taxpayers are to get most (if not all) of their money back. Since Chrysler hasn't really been an all-American company since the early 1980's, I'm not too bothered seeing the Italians take over. I'd really like to get me some of those CNG vehicles.

  • Doctor olds Doctor olds on Apr 15, 2011

    @Chris DeMorro- well put! I am pleased to write that Chrysler is hopping! They need more space for the engineers they are hiring. I love seeing the camo development cars on the roads around Auburn Hills and the sweet looking Fiat 500's, too. We need those white and gold collar jobs. There are houses for sale out here in Oakland County!

  • Sayahh Story idea or car design competition: design a compact sedan, a midsize sedan, coupe and/or wagon specifically for people 6'4" through 7'2". Not an SUV nor a crossover nor a raised chassis like the US Toyota Crown or Subaru Outback.
  • Sayahh I only check map app only when absolutely necessary and only at a red light. An observation: lots of ppl leave 2 car lengths (or more) between themselves and the car ahead of theirs so that they can text or check the internet (because they are afraid they might roll forward and hit the car in front of them?) This drives me crazy because many ppl do it and 3 cars will take up almost 7 car lengths and ppl cannot get into the left turn lane when it's bordered by a cement "curb." Worse is when they aren't even using their phone and have both hands on the stewring wheel and waiting for the green light. Half a car length is enough, people. Even one car length is too much, but 3 or 4 car lengths? At 40 MPH, maybe, not at 0 MPH please.
  • 6-speed Pomodoro My phone never leaves my pocket while driving. This is fine in my daily with bluetooth and also fine in my classic car, but people get mad in a hurry that I'm ignoring them.
  • BklynPete Maverick has had recalls but overall seems reliable. Consumer Reports recommends it for whatever that's worth, buyers think they're better than sliced bread, they're sold out, and look like a long-term success.I suppose you're right that DCT can be laid at Mulally's feet too but as COO Fields was in charge of product. When he got Mulally's job, Fields brought back mgmt siloes and lost shareholder value. Maybe Fields took the fall for other's bad decisions. But ultimately as CEO the axe had to land on him. I cannot believe that Farley won't meet the same fate if 2023 warranty claims make Ford lose money again.
  • Inside Looking Out All that is BS. Nissan just tries to buy time. By 2028 every Tesla will have fusion reactor under the hood. Commercial fusion reactor is under development as we speak 5 miles away from my home in Sandia labs in Livermore.