Posts tagged ‘Big Three’

We're All Technocrats

The auto bailout is dead, at least for now:

A bailout-weary Congress killed a $14 billion package to aid struggling U.S. automakers Thursday night after a partisan dispute over union wage cuts derailed a last-ditch effort to revive the emergency
aid before year's end.

Republicans, breaking sharply with President George W. Bush as his term draws to a close, refused to back federal aid for Detroit's beleaguered Big Three without a guarantee that the United Auto Workers would agree by the end of next year to wage cuts to bring their pay into line with U.S. plants of Japanese carmakers. The UAW refused to do so before its current contract with the automakers expires in 2011.

Good.  Chapter 11 was made for this kind of situation, and folks will quickly come to understand that productive assets don't go *poof* in a bankruptcy  (though equity values can).

By the way, you will note that Senate Republicans did not suddenly become economic libertarians.  Their objection seems to be that the bill does not micro-manage the auto industry they same way they would want to micro-manage the auto industry.  You can see in these political battles that Congress brings its usual identity politics to these decisions:  Republicans want to hammer the unions, Democrats want to hammer executive pay.  Which is why these restructuring discussions don't belong in Congress.

The Bailout Playbook

Step 1:  Really, really screw up your industry beyond all hope of repair, while paying yourself a nice salary to do so

Step 2:  Claim to the world that your industry is unique and different, and failure of your company and/or industry will cause a chain reaction that will bring down the whole economy and cost the country many multiples of the bailout price tag

Advocates for the nation's automakers are warning that the collapse of the Big Three - or even just General Motors - could set off a catastrophic chain reaction in the economy, eliminating up to 3 million jobs and depriving governments of more than $150 billion in tax revenue.

Step 2 is obviously pulled off easier if either a) representatives from your industry run the Treasury department or b) the new President owes your unions big time for his recent victory in a critical state.  For those of you just trying to keep you small business afloat, don't try this at home.  No bailout will ever be forthcoming if you don't have the power to move electoral votes, but you should expect to pay for other people's bailouts.

Postscript: This is funny:

Automakers say bankruptcy protection is not an option because people would be reluctant to make long-term car and truck purchases from companies that might not last the life of their vehicles.

I think if people still buy tickets on airlines that are operating out of chapter 11 (an item that has zero value if the company folds) then people will still buy cars.  This is so totally lame it is tremendously irritating.

For Those Who Doubted Me When I Said We Are Heading Towards A European-Style Corporate State

I predicted it here.  Now see it here:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that Congress is considering bailing out Detroit's Big Three automakers."We may need to make a statement of confidence in our auto industry," Pelosi told NPR this afternoon. "We're not saving those companies, we're saving an industry. We're saving an industrial technological and manufacturing base... It's about jobs in America."

I wrote why its better to let GM fail.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Pelosi held a meeting Monday with Democratic leaders to consider a request from Detroit's Big Three automakers for another $25 billion in "bridge financing" to help them survive a huge downturn in auto industry.

Another Reason Bailouts are Bad

I think the incentives issue has been beaten to death pretty well, but there is another problem with bailout:  They leave the productive assets of the failed company in essentially the same hands that failed to make good use of them previously.  Sure, the management has changed, but a few guys at the top of these large companies don't really mean squat.  To this point:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

David Leonhart (via Carpe Diem) argues that this was exactly the long-term downside of the Chrysler bailout:

Barry Ritholtz "” who runs an equity research firm in New York and writes The Big Picture,
one of the best-read economics blogs "” is going to publish a book soon
making the case that the bailout actually helped cause the decline. The
book is called, "Bailout Nation." In it, Mr. Ritholtz sketches out an
intriguing alternative history of Chrysler and Detroit.

Chrysler had collapsed, he argues, vulture investors might have swooped
in and reconstituted the company as a smaller automaker less tied to
the failed strategies of Detroit's Big Three and their unions. "If
Chrysler goes belly up," he says, "it also might have forced some deep
introspection at Ford and G.M. and might have changed their attitude
toward fuel efficiency and manufacturing quality." Some of the
bailout's opponents "” from free-market conservatives to Senator Gary
Hart, then a rising Democrat "” were making similar arguments three
decades ago.

Instead, the bailout and import quotas fooled the
automakers into thinking they could keep doing business as usual. In
1980, Detroit sold about 80% of all new vehicles in this country.
Today, it sells just 45%.

As I wrote about GM:

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

Good Money After Bad

If the world's citizens will not freely lend the Big Three automakers money of their own free will, then Congress is considering using force to make it happen.

Auto industry allies hope to secure
up to $50 billion in federal t loans this month to modernize plants and
help struggling car makers build more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Congress returns this coming week from its summer break, and the
auto industry plans an aggressive lobbying campaign for the
low-interest loans.

I wrote earlier on why we should not be afraid to let GM fail.  Paul Ingrassia makes this point:

low-interest loans to develop fuel-efficient cars should be made
available to all car companies, not just the Detroit Three. The law
passed by Congress last year is framed to make this highly unlikely.
But if developing fuel-efficient and alternative-energy cars is deemed
worthy of taxpayer subsidies for public-policy purposes, it's just
common sense not to put all our eggs in Detroit's basket.

I would have gone further and said that US automakers are perhaps the last one's one would entrust with limited capital resources to develop such a new technology.  What would have happened to the PC revolution had the government circa 1975 limited all the available investment capital for new computing technologies to IBM, DEC, Honeywell, etc.