By David Ruggles
During the recent Republican debate held in Mitt Romney’s home state of Michigan, the presidential hopeful was asked about the “rescue” of General Motors and Chrysler. The premise of the moderator’s question was that since the automakers are now doing well, did Romney “regret his opposition to the rescue?” Romney answered, “The government finally followed my advice,” referencing his November 2008 op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” [Click to read the full article.]
Despite the inflammatory headline, Romney’s article was temperate and well-reasoned. Some readers might have assumed that the “bankruptcy” Romney recommended was a Chapter 7 liquidation, but that was not the case. The piece was written in the context of events of the day, in particular the Detroit Three CEOs appearing before Congress to request a “bailout.” The initial request was for $25 billion in loans or loan guarantees. That appeal later grew to $35 billion, while the total investment necessary to do the job, which has largely been repaid or secured with stock, ballooned to $81 billion.
In his op-ed, Romney stated that it would be better if the two companies in question, GM and Chrysler, were allowed to go through a “managed, pre-structured bankruptcy to allow them to restructure themselves.” Without such a restructuring, but with a “bailout,” Romney argued, the companies would continue on their current unsustainable path and would ultimately have to liquidate. “But don’t ask Washington to give shareholders and bondholders a free pass — they bet on management and they lost,” Romney said in his piece.
Reached by telephone for this column, Steve Rattner, former chief of the Automotive Task Force, called Romney’s 2008 piece “prescient.” He praises Romney’s op-ed as “95% correct.” According to Rattner, the “Romney plan” was followed almost to the letter. The exception: there was “no debtor-in-possession financing available through private lenders, requiring the U.S. Treasury to fill that role,” he said. (Remember the financial system meltdown of 2008-9 – see the note at the bottom.)
After the “government finally took my advice” comment, though, Romney should have left it there. The Democrats seem to be trying to mischaracterize Romney’s stated position in the New York Times article by applying “liquidation” bankruptcy to Romney’s headline, instead of the reorganization he clearly recommended in the body of the column.
Even more confusing is that Romney himself currently seems to be mischaracterizing his own original position. Bloomberg writes: "In Michigan after Wednesday's Republican candidate debate, Mitt Romney defended his opposition to the government bailout that saved jobs in the tens of thousands at GM and Chrysler. (Again, see the note.) According to Romney, instead of asking the government to intervene, the companies should have entered into private sector bankruptcies immediately.”
Never one to waste an opportunity, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, said in an interview with Bloomberg that “Romney's view was ‘a knife in the back’ to his home state."
Rattner, too, is puzzled. “I can’t understand how Romney can go from being so out in front of the auto company reorganizations to disavowing his almost perfect original position. In fact, GM CEO Rick Wagoner stubbornly refused to consider Chapter 11 bankruptcy for GM and had to be removed for the reorganization to go forward.”
By the time Pres. Barack Obama was inaugurated, the Bush administration had already advanced $17.4 billion in “bridge loans” from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to the two ailing automakers. Congress had turned down a “bailout” package despite Vice Pres. Dick Cheney admonishing his fellow Republicans, “Do you want to be known as the party of Hoover forever?”
Perhaps Romney is criticizing the Bush administration for the “bridge loans,” but last anyone checked, George W. Bush is not running for President again.
What is clear is that the rescue of the auto industry will be a hot topic in the upcoming 2012 elections. The President and the Democrats will be taking credit for what so far seems to be a good move, despite flaws in the “rescue’s” execution. The Republicans seem determined to claim that the “rescue” was a “bailout” and shouldn’t have been done.
In Republican frontrunner Romney’s case, he seems to be having a difficult time making up his mind what he thinks. His camp did not respond to a request for clarification of his position in advance of this column.
David Ruggles has spent his career in every phase of the retail side of the auto business, new and used, sales and management, including consulting and training in both the U.S. & Japan. Ruggles has been a dealer for Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler, Dodge, GMC, Ford, Mazda, and Subaru, and has consulted for one of the world’s largest privately owned Toyota dealer groups located in Japan. He blogs at autosandeconomics.blogspot.com and writes regular columns for several publications.
Note: on this blog Ruggles and Smitka repeatedly examined this issue during 2008-9, arguing that, due to the interlinked nature of the supply chain, made visible in the aftershocks to the industry of the "3/11" Tohoku earthquake, the liquidation of GM would have forced suppliers and hence Toyota, Honda and the rest of manufacturing to close. Without inventory, dealers would have followed, while even repairs on existing vehicles would have become difficult because spare parts production would also have shut down. Remember, there was no private financing to handle normal Chapter 11 bankruptcy – the only alternative would have been immediate liquidation.