Friday, December 12, 2008

What A Pathetic Display

The Washington Post, observing that the only proposal to save the auto industry is failing in the Senate - due to, of all things, a Republican demand for what amount to wage caps on auto workers - "What's Plan B?" It astonishes me that a Republican President can't convince enough of his own party's senators of the urgency of action, that they drop their filibuster threat. In what seems like "business as usual", a scheduled vacation appears more important to the Democrats than actually forcing the Republicans to break out their encyclopedias and, if they truly wish to block the bill, actually filibuster.

The short answer to the question, "What's Plan B", appears to be to use TARP money for the bail-out, which could mean that none of the restrictions, compromises, or demands placed upon the Big Three by the bailout bill will be implemented. The Republican Party may be giddy with the idea of harming or breaking the UAW and benefitting the foreign auto manufacturers who are located in "red states", but G.W. is worried about the tattered remnants of his legacy.
"Because Congress failed to act, we will stand ready to prevent an imminent failure until Congress reconvenes and acts to address the long-term viability of the industry," Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said.

And, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it is considering using the Wall Street rescue fund to prevent the USA's strapped carmakers from failing.
I like that - it's "because Congress failed to act", rather than, "Because the President couldn't convince his own party to back a bill he supports." Perino elaborated that "it would be 'irresponsible' to further erode the economy by allowing failure in Detroit", but how about some honesty here about just who it is that the President is describing as irresponsible.

The Washington Post repeats some common, yet silly, complaints about the auto industry,
Furthermore, if the Detroit carmakers are going to survive, they will have to completely overhaul the way they do business - and start building cars that people will buy.
Lets look back a whole year:
General Motors announced today that it sold 9,369,524 vehicles worldwide in 2007, which puts it in a dead heat with Toyota for the title of world's best-selling automaker.
Now the Big Three deserve criticism for disregarding the end of cheap oil, but really... but for the spike in gas prices this summer and the current financial crises, at current gas prices those highly profitable gas guzzling vehicles "that no one wants" would be flying off of car lots across the nation. (If auto makers booked their profits when those vehicles sold, as opposed to when they were shipped to dealerships, they would be looking a lot healthier right now - because sales appear to be picking up.)
For that, they are going to need new leadership, a rational assessment of their long record of failure and, yes, a much larger infusion of government cash.
We're back to that "new leadership" thing.... Something the Post isn't demanding of the finance industry, despite a perhaps unparalleled record of failure and incompetence by its leaders. Heck, the Post doesn't even appear upset by the astronomical wages, bonuses, and even stock dividends that bailed-out financial companies are paying with taxpayer money.

Perhaps we need a financial industry czar - somebody who saw that derivatives were, let's say, a "time bomb" or as "financial weapons of mass destruction"... Oh, but let's be realistic. Nobody could have seen the financial industry's problems coming. We need to find a Warren Buffett for the intelligence community, and apparently we need a Warren Buffett for the auto industry. It's truly a shame we can't find a Warren Buffett for the financial industry.

I've already commented, but it bears repeating - where exactly does the Post imagine that the Big Three will find "magic men" to lead them in a new direction? Ford got its CEO from Boeing; Chrysler's CEO used to head, of all things, Home Depot. How far outside the industry is far enough to satisfy this ridiculous demand - and what's wrong with looking for people within the industry who actually know about cars and may even have a track record of developing vehicles that are suited to the future?
Nobody - including the carmakers - fully understands the depth of Detroit’s problems or how much money it will take to dig them out. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, told Congress last week that rescuing the companies would cost taxpayers $75 billion to $125 billion over the next two years. And that’s probably optimistic.
Now that's a fair criticism. Chrysler, for example, is pretending that the bailout will result in a quick return to profitability. Does it believe that, or is it spinning a fairy tale? If the former, there's good cause to question the competence of its leadership. If the latter, it appears to be part of a mendacious plan by Cerberus Capital Management to get a taxpayer subsidy that allows it to avoid taking a loss on a bad investment. As you already know, I think it's the latter.

If the Big Three are glossing over a future that, realistically, will require a taxpayer bailout exceeding $100 billion, we should be sending them back to revise their plans to reflect that reality - and to demonstrate how they could recover with a smaller infusion of taxpayer money.

Beyond the Post's dream that the Big Three will find "magic men" to take over for their present leadership, it whines,
And the bill doesn’t set any conditions to ensure automakers invest in fuel-efficient vehicles. Any long-term plan must make sure the automakers don’t simply keep making gas-guzzling trucks and sport-utility vehicles, whose popularity - unfortunately - has recovered as gas prices have declined.
There's not even a slight effort to achieve internal consistency. If the idea is to force auto manufacturers to build cars that consumers want, it appears that they are doing so - as long as gas prices are low. If the idea is to force them to give up their gas guzzlers in favor of fuel-sipping vehicles, that's something quite apart from getting them to build the vehicles people want to buy. Let's be blunt - if you could build a car the size of a small house, have it get 25 MPG, do 0-60 in less than ten seconds, and sell it in various forms for $20-$30K, it would be the most popular car in America. (The auto manufacturers are about as likely to be able to create such a car as they are to find the Post's "magic man" leaders, so don't accuse me of being unrealistic.)

It should go without saying, but it doesn't - so here we go again. If the goal is to create a competitive domestic auto industry, you can't do that by hamstringing auto makers and forcing them to build under fuel efficiency standards that don't apply to their competitors. If you want more fuel efficient cars on the road, build an even playing field by instituting new, meaningful CAFE standards that apply to everyone.

If the Post is correct, that it's going to take $75 - $125 billion to turn around the domestic auto industry, then perhaps its time to think about something far different from a bailout that tries to keep the three auto makers in business. There are a number of options, short of and including bankruptcy, that should be considered in the new year. Assuming GM and Chrysler aren't already in bankruptcy by then.

But how about at least passing a contingency plan - an authorization of aid to parts suppliers to keep them out of bankruptcy in the event that Chrysler and/or GM file Chapter 11. If we're going to risk that they fail, let's at least try to keep them from dragging Ford down with them.


  1. Although I am perhaps the least likely person in America to defend the UAW, there is something patently unfair about protecting the bonuses of financial "leaders" while demanding wage cuts for union members.


  2. Or using taxpayer money to pay their Christmas bonuses?

  3. Exactly, when we are asked to bail the industry out of a hole they have dug though their own greed and mismanagement; when we are told that it is unacceptable to tie a cap on managements compensation to the bail out; and then when we found out that there was nothing preventing management from using the money "directly" to pay their holiday bonuses; the fix was clearly in . . .


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