A Successful IPO Does Not a Justifiable Bailout Make

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the meaning of GM’s IPO today.  A common narrative in today’s media is that GM’s return to the stock market affirms the wisdom of the auto bailout.  Some tougher customers in the media insist on a higher threshold being met—that taxpayers get back the entirety of their $50 billion investment in GM—before declaring “mission accomplished.” And then there are the rabid partisans who—in their seething animosity toward the Obama administration—reach conclusions devoid of logic and rich only in conspiratorial-mindedness.  For example, yesterday I was contacted by a media outlet vetting this conclusion: “The IPO is evidence of the failure of the bailout because taxpayers were excluded from buying shares at the IPO price and, therefore, denied the opportunity to get their money back.”  Huh?

All of those analyses are wrong.  Let me dispense with the last one first, as it simply betrays a gross misunderstanding of how taxpayers are on the hook.  By divesting of GM (i.e., selling its shares), the government is beginning to make the taxpayer whole.  But just as there were no checks written directly from taxpayers to GM, there will be no checks written to taxpayers, as the Treasury liquidates the public’s share of GM.  Whether main street Americans could participate in the IPO has nothing to do with making the taxpayer whole.  And, by the way, IPOs typically limit sales of shares at the initial price to a chosen few.  So let’s just shelve the canned indignation on this claim.  It’s a distraction.

Here’s the real issue.  Today’s IPO is nothing more than testament to the fact that the government threw GM a lifeline, enabling the company to expunge most of its debts and firm up its balance sheet on terms more favorable than a normal bankruptcy process would have yielded.  That enabled GM to partake of the cyclically growing U.S. auto market in 2010 and turn a profit through the first three quarters.  So what?  Did anyone really think that a chosen company so coddled and insulated from market realities couldn’t turn a short-run profit?  Yes, even GM, under those favorable conditions should have been expected to turn a profit this year.

But at what cost?  That answer—even the question—seems to be elusive in the public discussion of the IPO.  The cost was not only $50 billion—the amount diverted to GM in the first place.  Nor was it that $50 billion minus the proceeds raised in today’s IPO (and minus the proceeds raised later when the government divests entirely of GM – it will still hold 33% of GM after today).  In other words, making taxpayers whole does not absolve the Bush and Obama administration’s for the auto intervention.  Recouping the $50 billion only gets us partially out of the hole.  (And I’m not even sure who “us” includes because the costs are so far reaching.)

Yes, GM is making sales and accounting for market share, but only at the expense of the other automakers.  Had GM been forced to severely atrophy or liquidate, the other automakers would have had greater revenues, more market share, and probably higher profits).  They would have been able to attract GM’s best engineers and line workers.  They would have more money to invest in R&D and to lead the industry into the future.  Instead, by keeping GM in the mix, some of those industry resources remain misallocated in a company that the evolutionary market process would have made smaller or extinct. 

The auto industry wasn’t rescued with the GM bailout.  GM was “rescued.”  By rescuing GM, the government overrode market forces, and there are significant costs to assign for that.  Witness the stagnant economy with 9.6 percent unemployment.  Is it not plausible that businesses are sitting on their cash and not investing or hiring because of the fear inspired by the government interventions starting with the bank and auto bailouts?  It’s more than plausible.  The regime uncertainty that persists to this day was spawned by the GM bailout and other interventions.

What about the weakening of the rule of law?  Doesn’t the diversion of TARP funds by the Bush administration, in circumvention of congress’s wishes and in contravention of the language of the law, represent a cost?  How about the property right of preferred bondholders who were forced to take pennies on their investment dollars under the Obama bankruptcy plan?  Any costs there?  What about U.S. moral authority to dissuade other goverments from meddling in their markets or indulging industrial policy?  That may be costly to U.S. enterprises.  And with the government still holding a third of GM, its hard to swallow the idea that public interest will be the driver of policies affecting the auto industry.  And that suggests even more costs.

But don’t mistake this blog post for an anti-IPO rant.  I’m in favor of the IPO.  It couldn’t have happened sooner.  But I suspect the investment bankers, the administration, and the other members of GM’s Board of Directors reckoned that, with the hype over the new Chevy Volt and the recent newsleak of GM’s $43 billion in unorthodox tax deferrments on the balance sheet, now was the perfect time to go public.