The President’s Heroics and Other Tall Tales about the Auto Industry

Newt Gingrich defeated communism, someone hacked Anthony Weiner’s Twitter account, and President Obama saved the U.S. automobile industry.  Grandiosity, denial, and revisionism are all noted indulgences of the political breed.  That’s why we should always be skeptical of their words and pity the partisan lemmings who mindlessly parrot their rhetoric.

In his SOTU speech last night, the president claimed credit for rescuing the auto industry:

On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen. In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s number one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs.

We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.

This is a claim that is likely to be repeated as the president campaigns across the country this year, so it may be worthwhile to examine its merits.  (Who knows, maybe an effective debate moderator or Sunday news show host might find his way to asking the right questions of the president or members of his administration.)

Closer analysis reveals that President Obama (enabled by President Bush’s complicity) bailed out specific stakeholders at two auto companies at great cost to U.S. taxpayers and at great expense to important U.S. institutions. 

The assertion – or implication – that he saved the auto industry is bogus. The auto industry was never on the verge of collapse.  GM and Chrysler were in deep trouble, but Ford, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Kia, Hyundai, BMW and Mercedes Benz (to name some U.S. producers) were fine.  Yes, in 2008-2009 the economy was in recession and automobile demand had tanked.  The companies that had been the most profligate, the most reckless, and the least disciplined were exposed, but talk of industry collapse was the product of a Detroit public relations campaign that featured the claim that 2 to 3 million jobs could be lost if the government didn’t funnel huge sums of cash to the Big Three. (Details here.)

I have shouted from the rooftops about this issue for over three years.  So rather than present all the facts and reconstruct all the arguments, let me economize with reference to this congressional testimony, given seven month ago. It pretty well sums up everything that’s wrong or misleading about the president’s narrative.

As I wrote last year:

The objection to the auto bailout was not that the federal government wouldn’t be able to marshal adequate resources to help GM. The most serious concerns were about the consequences of that intervention — the undermining of the rule of law, the property confiscations, the politically driven decisions and the distortion of market signals.

Any verdict on the auto bailouts must take into account, among other things, the illegal diversion of TARP funds, the forced transfer of assets from shareholders and debt-holders to pensioners and their union; the higher-risk premiums consequently built into U.S. corporate debt; the costs of denying Ford and the other more worthy automakers the spoils of competition; the costs of insulating irresponsible actors, such as the autoworkers’ union, from the outcomes of an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against market interventions; and the lingering uncertainty about policy that pervades the business environment to this day.

GM’s recent profits speak only to the fact that politicians committed more than $50 billion to the task of rescuing those companies and the United Auto Workers. With debts expunged, cash infused, inefficiencies severed, ownership reconstituted, sales rebates underwritten and political obstacles steamrolled — all in the midst of a recovery in U.S. auto demand — only the most incompetent operations could fail to make profits.

But taxpayers are still short at least $10 billion to $20 billion (depending on the price that the government’s 500 million shares of GM will fetch), and there is still significant overcapacity in the auto industry.

The administration should divest as soon as possible, without regard to the stock price. Keeping the government’s tentacles around a large firm in an important industry will keep the door open wider to industrial policy and will deter market-driven decision-making throughout the industry, possibly keeping the brakes on the recovery. Yes, there will be a significant loss to taxpayers. But the right lesson to learn from this chapter in history is that government interventions carry real economic costs — only some of which are readily measurable.