The GM ‘Turnaround’ in Bastiat’s View

GM’s long-rumored initial public stock offering will take place Thursday and self-anointed savior of the U.S. auto industry, Steven Rattner, is pretty bullish about the prospect of investors turning out in droves. 

I’ve been saying for a while that I thought the government’s exposure [euphemism for taxpayer losses] in the auto bailout was in the $10-billion to $20-billion range.

But since investor interest has pushed the initial price up from the $26-to-$29 per share range to the $32-$33 range, Rattner now believes:

[T]his exposure is in the single-digit billion range, and arguably potentially better.

I won’t argue with Rattner’s numbers.  After all, they affirm one of my many criticisms of the bailout: that taxpayers would never recoup the value of their “investment.”  My bigger problem is with Rattner’s cavalier disregard for the other enduring—and arguably more significant—costs of the auto bailouts.

Rattner is like the foil in Frederic Bastiat’s excellent, but not-famous-enough, 1850 parable, That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen.    Rattner touts what is seen, namely that GM and Chrysler still exist.  And they exist because of his and his colleagues’ commitment to a plan to ensure their survival, along with the hundreds of thousands (if not millions, as some “estimates” had it) of jobs that were imperiled had those companies vanished.  (For starters, I very much question even what is seen here. I am skeptical of the counterfactual that GM and Chrysler would have disappeared and that there would have been significantly more job loss in the industry than there actually was during the recession and restructuring.  But I’ll grant his view of what is seen because, frankly, the specifics are irrelevant in the final analysis).

For what is seen, Rattner admirably admits of a cost.  And that cost is not insignificant.  It is anywhere from $65 billion to $82 billion (the range of the cost of the bailout) minus what is being paid back and what investors are willing to pay for GM shares—in the “single-digit billion range,” as Rattner says.  But Rattner is willing to stand by that trade-off, claiming his efforts and the billions in “government exposure” were a small price to pay for saving the U.S. auto industry, as it were.  It’s merely a difference in philosophy or compassion that animates bailout critics, according to this position.

No.  Not so fast.  All along (quite contemptuously in this op-ed, which I criticized here) Rattner has been unwilling to acknowledge the costs that are unseen.  Those unseen costs include:

  • the added uncertainty that pervades the private sector and assigns higher risks and thus higher costs to investing and hiring (whom might government favor or punish next?);
  • the diversion of resources from productive to political purposes in the business community (instead of buying that machinery to churn out better or more lawn mower engines, better to hire lobbyists to keep Washington apprised of how important we are or how this or that policy might be beneficial to the national employment picture!);
  • excessive risk-taking and other uneconomic behavior that falls under the rubric of moral hazard from entities that might consider themselves too-big-to-fail (perhaps, even, the New GM!);
  • growing aversion to—and rising cost of—corporate debt (don’t forget what happened to Chrysler’s “preferred” bondholders in the bankruptcy process!);
  • the sales and market share that should have gone to Ford or Honda or VW as part of the evolutionary market process;
  • the fruitful R&D expenditures of those more disciplined companies;
  • the expansion of job opportunities at those companies and their suppliers;
  • productivity gains passed on to workers in the form of higher wages or to consumers as lower prices;
  • the diminution of the credibility needed to discourage foreign governments from meddling in markets, often to the detriment of U.S. enterprises.

 The list goes on.

 Yet, Rattner, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the economy remains stuck in the mire, speaks triumphantly of the successful auto bailout.  But nobody ever doubted that taxpayer resources in the hands of policymakers willing to push the bounds of legality could “rescue” GM from a fate it deserved.  The concern was that policymakers would do just that, leaving behind wreckage to our institutions not immediately discernible.  But anemic economic activity, 9.6 percent unemployment, and a private sector unwilling to invest is pretty darn discernible at this point.

Rattner should take off the tails, put down the champagne flute, and acknowledge what was originally unseen.