With the Big 3 back in Washington, it seems like time to resuscitate the debate over the auto industry bailout. Luckily, Felix Salmon took the time to look through GM’s bankruptcy plan, which is being advertised on GM’s new, also gag-inducing GM Facts and Fiction website. Here’s one particularly gag-worthy claim from the plan:
GM has never failed to meet a Congressional mandate in the important areas of fuel efficiency and vehicle emissions, and sets the industry standard for “green” manufacturing methods.
Let’s not mention that GM has fought increased fuel efficiency standards with every dollar it could spend on lobbyists for decades.
Anyway, Salmon’s post focuses on one issue that has troubled me as well. One of GM’s biggest problems, along with plummeting demand for cars, is $62 billion in debt. In order to become a financially viable company, they have to reduce this debt, presumably by converting some of it into equity. But that debt is held by private entities, and no amount of pleading from the Big 3, the UAW, Jennifer Granholm, Congress, or Barack Obama HIMSELF can force them to restructure the debt. My worry is that in negotiations of this sort, where each side is holding a gun to the head of the other, debtholders could very well say: “Go ahead, go bankrupt, we’ll take our chances that we can get a better deal from a bankruptcy court or, worst case, we can recover more in cash than the value of the equity you’re offering today.” One of the points of a bankruptcy is to get a court that can force bondholders to accept a settlement rather than relying on their good graces.
On a related subject, a lot of people are throwing around the 80% number: supposedly, 80% of people will not buy a car from a company in bankruptcy. A GM spokesman said (to Felix Salmon) that GM’s sales were already falling because of fears about bankruptcy. Maybe. But I strongly suspect that 80% is just a poorly worded and interpreted poll question. If you ask people in the abstract if they would buy cars from a bankrupt car company, of course they will say no. But in the real world, if the car they want is made by a bankrupt company, and they get a good deal, they will buy it. Just look at the November auto sales. GM was down 41%; Toyota, Honda, and Nissan were down 34%, 32%, and 42%, respectively. And everyone buying a car in November must have been aware that bankruptcy for GM was a serious possibility. (Besides, haven’t we been talking about a GM bankruptcy on and off for years?) Sure, bankruptcy will hurt sales a little. But 80% is just not credible.