by David Ruggles
Amid the political turmoil of election season the rescue of the domestic auto industry by the George W. Bush administration and the Obama Administration is certainly a political football. The President and the Democrats have to defend the fact that the “rescue” wasn’t done perfectly, although a debate rages over exactly what those imperfections might be and who is responsible for them. Many Republicans are sticking to their position that the domestic auto industry should have been allowed to liquidate and eventually reform, although that logic doesn’t play well in the key “swing states” Ohio and Michigan. Governor Romney was adamantly against the “bailout” saying “Let Detroit go Bankrupt” and declaring that “a bail out would insure their failure.” Of course, this is all confused by Romney’s attempt in the Republican debates to actually take credit for the rescue saying, “They took my advice.” (His campaign has repeatedly declined comment when asked to clarify their candidate’s position on the issue.)
It also seems to ignore the fact that in the case of liquidation, there would have obviously been a huge cost dropped on the various states for unemployment compensation, a ripple impact through the banking system, chaos in the supplier base, and a disruption of military procurement. The ultimate result could have been a true Depression. Most pragmatic politicians wouldn’t have taken the risk, despite rhetoric to the contrary.
Some of the criticism leveled at supporters of the auto manufacturer rescue is based on the fact that if GM stock were liquidated today, based on its current value which is down a third since its’ IPO date, the taxpayers would sustain a loss in the tens of billions of dollars, which is entirely true. Of course, no one has calculated the cost of NOT doing the rescue, a calculation which would have to be based on speculation and would be subject to considerable argument.
Another issue rarely heard has to do with the billions of dollars of pension liabilities that would have been dropped on the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. While a close estimate of that financial burden is not available, a comparison is. When United Airlines dropped their pension liabilities on the PBGC about 8 years ago as a part of their Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the amount was $6.6 billion. While this is technically an insurance fund, the obligation for pension obligations abrogated by liquidating OEMs and suppliers in the case of an auto industry liquidation would have easily run into the tens of billions of dollars, rendering the fund insolvent. This would have either landed on the back of taxpayers or pension checks would have ceased for many retired Americans. The impact on the psyche of the country and on consumption in the economy can only be imagined.
In the meantime, President Obama and Governor Romney and their political parties have both been banned from GM properties until after the election. There will be no political grandstanding on bailed out automaker facilities! Imagine banning the person who represents one of your largest stockholders, without whom you would not exist.
The two automakers have also refused to furnish vehicles for the national political conventions. It’s a smart move for GM and Chrysler to stay away from politics when possible. After all, they want to sell vehicles to both Republicans and Democrats.
While things are somewhat different for Chrysler now that FIAT has bought out the Federal Government’s stake, are GM executives hedging their bets in case President Obama loses in November? While it hasn’t been talked about a lot, it has occurred to more than a few GM stockholders (myself included) what would happen if Romney is elected and immediately dumps all of the government’s stock in General Motors. This would certainly be devastating for the stock price, but what does Romney have to lose? He could claim to have relieved of GM of its Government Motors moniker, while hurting millions of private stockholders. He could blame the losses on the previous administration, and move on. If reelected, it is a given that President Obama would hold on to the GM stock, selling small amounts at a time to maintain the stock price, while hoping the improving economy would further bolster the value of the taxpayer’s stock.
It is also a given that President Obama’s role in the restructuring in the domestic auto industry gives him a serious advantage in the November election. It is hard to imagine Ohio and Michigan going Republican. And without those two states, the road to the White House becomes a near impossible journey. And if GM shareholders across the country get wind of Romney’s intent to dump the taxpayer’s GM stock at once, it could impact the way people vote in other closely contested states.