"Volt Scam" Debate Misses The Point
Mark Modica, a former Saturn dealer GM bondholder, has leveraged his financial loss at the hands of the government bailout into a blogging position at the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative nonprofit that “promotes ethics in public life through research, investigation, education and legal action.” At the NLPC, Modica focuses on what he believes to be corruption surrounding the auto bailout, and has written a series of anti-GM posts that make TTAC look like a Detroit hometown newspaper (TTAC “bias police,” take note). Most recently, Modica has caught the attention of the auto media, including Automobile Magazine and Jalopnik, with a series of posts accusing Chevy dealers of “scamming” taxpayers by claiming the Volt’s $7,500 tax credit and then selling Volts as used cars. TTAC welcomes anyone seeking to cast more light on the bailout, but unfortunately, Modica’s attacks are too focused on making GM look bad and not focused enough on providing relevant information to the American people. Let’s take a look and see why…
In the piece that set off the current flap, Modica wrote
I recently set out to determine how honest General Motors is being when it claims that demand for the Chevy Volt is exceeding supply. It was not hard to discover that this is not the case as retail sales remain dismal. A web search on vehicle locator sites such as Autotrader and Cars.com exhibit sufficient supply of the Volt, one dealership within 70 miles of my location had six new Volts available for sale.
Even Ebay lists vehicles, many had no bids and one listing in Texas hadn’t even met reserve with only one day of bidding time remaining. But I discovered something far more disturbing during my search. Many Volts with practically no miles on them are being sold as “used” vehicles, enabling the dealerships to benefit from the $7,500 credit supplied by the American taxpayers on each car. The process of titling the Volts technically makes the dealerships the first owners of the vehicles, which gives them the ability to claim the subsidies. The cars are then offered to retail customers as “used” vehicles.
The practice of dealerships purchasing from one another is not uncommon. “Dealer trades” are done all the time in the industry. What is very unusual is for the receiving dealership to be able to maximize profits at the expense of taxpayers by claiming tax credits of $7,500. It is also very rare for dealerships to part with any model that has higher demand than supply, as GM claims is the case with the Volt. In addition to qualifying dealerships for a $7,500 tax subsidy, the titling process also allows GM to record Volt sales even if the cars are sitting on dealership lots.
Modica’s attack is hamstrung from the start because his goal is to demonstrate that supply of the Volt exceeds demand. The simple truth is that the government’s tax credit, in combination with strong early-adopter demand and low production volumes, basically guarantees that Volt demand will outstrip demand in the short term. If Modica wants to prove that the market won’t support the Volt’s high price and complexity, he’s going to have to wait until production ramps up and the early adopters have satiated their “gotta have it” instincts.
Because he doesn’t appear to have the patience to watch the Volt fail on its own terms (which, it must be added, is not a foregone conclusion, depending on how GM handles production), Modica has to look twice as hard for potentially damning evidence. Since the availability of used Volts alone doesn’t say much about the supply-demand balance, Modica manufactures another “scandal”: that Chevy dealers are taking the $7,500 tax credit that the government intends for consumers, and then selling Volts as used cars with no tax credit.
This “scandal” quickly falls apart under the weight of its over-ambitious pretensions: after all, if demand for Volts is as weak as Modica wants to believe, surely absorbing the tax credit at the dealer level is a recipe for Volts languishing on dealer lots. Since Modica offers no evidence for high dealer inventory, his major thrust (proving that demand for the Volt is weak) falls apart. Furthermore, without a single case of a dealership claiming the tax credit and then selling a Volt to a customer under the pretense that it still qualifies for the tax credit, his research ends up well short of proving a “scandal.” As a result, Modica is left having to argue against dealers taking the credit on principle.
And here’s the tragedy: Modica is so focused on landing a political-economic “scandal,” he ignores the legitimate criticisms of both GM’s Volt-dealer policies and the government’s tax credit. Had he been less interested in the political side of things, Modica would have noted that GM’s hands-off approach to Volt dealers has led to dealers gouging early adopters. Sure, that storyline would have proven that short-term demand for the Volt was strong, but then Modica could have pointed to the contrasting situation at Nissan, where Leaf sales are pre-arranged online, cutting dealer markups out of the loop. This strategy also keeps Nissan dealers from taking the tax credit (at least in theory), and will prevent any “gouging fatigue” that could hurt Volt demand down the road.
From the other side of this issue, if Modica had been more interested in the politics of plug-in tax credits, he would have realized that manufacturing a poorly-proven “scam” was wholly unnecessary. As TTAC reported back in February, taxpayers have already lost some $7m worth of plug-in tax credits to fraud. In short, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has already proven that $33m of tax credits were claimed erroneously by everyone from prisoners to IRS employees ($7m of which is unrecoverable), offering Modica a well-documented scandal that has been undercovered in the mainstream media.
When industry and politics collide, the public deserves strong, independent information gathering and analysis to protect against inevitable abuses. But those who wish to take up that mantle have a responsibility to own up to their motivations: are they looking for legitimate issues regardless of their political or economic consequences, or do they set out with predetermined conclusions and gather up just enough information to support them? Unfortunately, Modica’s history and recent work seem to place him in the former category. Exploring the interaction between the US Government and the auto industry that it now interacts with more than ever, requires the ability to spot scandals without having to manufacture them. And the more you cover the inevitably tortured relationship between private business and public government, the more you realize that there are very few big scandals anyway… after all, free markets and fair governments almost always die the death of a thousand cuts rather than being taken down by a cartoonish scandal.
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GM responded by saying that the two dealers who have been identified as taking advantage of the tax credit are not authorized to sell new Volts. One is a Kia dealership and the other is a Chevy dealer in a region that outside the launch areas. I'm not naive, those dealers probably bought their Volts from another dealer in the same business group, but technically GM is right that they have no control over this. I don't know much about economics but it seems to me that this behavior, the car dealers trying to keep the tax credit for themselves, is a great example of how government action beyond making sure that contracts are enforced and fraud does not take place, particularly in the area of taxes and subsidies, can distort a market.
Yes, but leaving Modica's obvious agenda aside, the NY Times quotes an Atlanta dealer admitting bluntly that he sent two employees up to a NY dealer to pose as genuine retail buyers and buy two Volts which were titled in their names long enough to get the tax credit, then to be transferred to the dealer and sold as used. I hope there isn't any doubt that is unethical. As they say, it doesn't meet the "smell test."