Tag: auto bailout

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.

Ford Motor’s Curious Policy Priorities

Though it has been relatively successful in the marketplace lately, the Ford Motor Company continues to confound in its public policy commitments.

First, the company remained silent for the better part of two years as its chief domestic rivals General Motors and Chrysler were nursed back to viability by a doting government dispensing $65 billion of taxpayer-funded nourishment. Not once (to my knowledge) did Ford publicly complain that the government bailout of its struggling competitors was an affront to its own prospects or that it would deny the company its rightful increase in sales and market share (the so-called spoils of competition).

But now Ford is trumpeting its opposition to the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. In a full page ad in today’s Washington Post, Ford implores Americans to reject the agreement as it currently stands, arguing that it would “allow Korea to remain one of the most closed automotive markets in the world.” So all of a sudden Ford is concerned about sales and market share?

Had GM and Chrysler been allowed to contract to a degree commensurate with their reckless decisions over the years, Ford might have hit the mother lode of sales and market share. But Ford didn’t even attempt to make that case. If Ford is so concerned about sales and market share, where is the outrage over the $45.4 billion in unconventional tax deferrals being granted GM as part of the ongoing bailout bonanza? Aren’t those deferrals just subsidies to help GM regain market share … at Ford’s expense?

Instead, Ford has chosen to target a trade agreement that promises enormous benefits to American businesses and consumers, a slew of new domestic employment opportunities, and annual increases in GDP of anywhere from $17 to $43 billion (bailout-type sums!) on the grounds that the agreement contains no guarantees of increased U.S. auto sales in Korea.

There are no guarantees in trade. But that’s what Ford and others in the U.S. auto industry and in Congress want: guaranteed sales figures, bilateral trade balance within the auto sector, managed outcomes. Is that what Ford means in the ad where it claims to support free trade?

Granted, the Korean auto market has been notoriously difficult to penetrate. Behind-the-border taxes levied on engine size and other non-tariff barriers have discouraged purchases of U.S. automobiles in Korea. But without the agreement, none of that will change. With the agreement, Korea reduces its tariff on passenger vehicles from 8% to 0 immediately, while the United States reduces its tariff on passenger vehicles from 2.5% to 0 immediately. So both are good reforms, but there is no question that U.S. auto exporters get a relatively bigger boost from the agreement. And though there are no guarantees of hard sales quotas, one can be pretty well assured that only the most inept producer/exporter would fail to capitalize on an 8 percent cost reduction granted with the stroke of a pen.

Ford should stop politicking and stay focused on the goal of making better automobiles.

Glory-of-Government Religiosity Finds Bailout Skeptics “Willfully Stupid”

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way

- Stevie Wonder

David Ignatius is entitled to this opinion:

We have just lived through one of the more notable successes of government intervention in modern times – the auto and bank rescues that almost surely saved the country from another Great Depression.

But if his intention is to convince skeptics—and not just to rally the deflated spirits of those who came to Washington with high hopes of teaching Americans how to love their government—he does a lousy job.  A bold assertion like his requires supporting evidence more rigorous than hearsay, superstition, and the opinions of his friend, and former “Car Czar,”  Steven Rattner.

Ignatius considers the bailouts successful because GM is still in business and the banking sector didn’t collapse.  According to Ignatius (often channeling Rattner):

Private companies made bad decisions that put the U.S. economy at risk; government made good (if politically unpopular) decisions to keep these mismanaged companies afloat, fearing that a collapse would mean much worse trouble…Private actors made bad decisions, but public officials generally made good ones…Washington is such an easy target that we forget the real villains of this story are the bankers and auto executives who steered their companies toward disaster.


Where is the credible evidence that without the interventions we were headed for another Great Depression?  Where is support for the argument that it’s smart to keep “mismanaged companies afloat”?  Where are the convincing facts (not the figures produced by the Big Three’s PR machine in November 2008) that the auto industry would have shed 2 to 3 million jobs had the government not intervened to save GM and Chrysler on the administration’s terms?  Where are the soothing facts that the incentives to avoid failure in the banking and auto sectors have not been weakened by the interventions?  Where is the compelling defense against the charge that government policies that subsidized chosen firms in the mortgage industry created the incentives for risk-taking—that Ignatius pegs as the root cause of the problem—in the first place?

Apparently, Ignatius doesn’t swell with desire for limited constitutional government. He writes, “It’s one thing to denounce government when it fails to achieve its goals.  But to ignore government’s achievements in times of crisis is willfully stupid.”

It’s clear that Ignatius column is more of an ideologically-driven rant doubling as a pitch for Rattner’s new book about the heroic role of the Auto Task Force in saving the auto industry.   As I wrote a few months ago in response to Rattner’s chest-puffing:

Rattner’s verdict rests on the singular consideration that “a year after the government-sponsored bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, both patients are alive and progressing well toward recovery.” But that’s like hailing the stable medical condition of a drunk driver after an accident, while ignoring the injuries to the family in the vehicle he struck.

The impact of the auto intervention on its victims doesn’t factor into Rattner’s analysis.

Rattner’s claim of auto “rescue” success is the product of a straw-man set-up. The most compelling objections to the bailout were not rooted in the belief that the government couldn’t use its assumed power to help GM and Chrysler.  On the contrary, the most compelling objections were over concerns that the government would do just that.  It is the consequences of that intervention—the undermining of the rule of law, the confiscations, the politically-driven decisions, and the distortion of market signals—that animated the most serious objections.

Thus, any verdict on the outcome of the auto industry intervention must take into account, among other things, the billions of dollars in property confiscated from the auto companies’ debt-holders; the higher risk premium built into U.S. corporate debt, as a result; the costs of denying Ford and the other more successful auto producers the spoils of competition (including additional market share and access to the resources misallocated at GM and Chrysler); the costs of rewarding irresponsible actors, like the United Autoworkers union, by insulating them from the outcomes of what should have been an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the effects of GM’s nationalization on production, investment, and public policy decisions; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against market interventions that can adversely affect U.S. businesses competing abroad, and; the corrosive impact on America’s institutions of the illegal diversion of TARP funds under two presidential administrations.

It is willfully deceptive to direct the public’s attention away from these less discernible, but very consquential costs of the bailout.


GM announced yesterday its intention to go sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange, thus officially beginning the process of re-privatizing the company.

A GM initial public offering is the right move, and cannot happen soon enough.  Let’s get the government out of the car business now. 

But successfully reprivatizing GM should not be seen as a sign that the intervention itself was successful.  The intervention was akin to theft – from Ford, Honda, Toyota, the other automakers and taxpayers – and was highly damaging to crucial longstanding institutions in the United States, like property rights and the rule of law.

The costs of GM’s ”turnaround,” if it is to happen, will never be fully appreciated.  The other auto companies were denied the spoils of competition.  Had they been able to pick up the market share that the nationalized GM has maintained, then more resources would have flowed to the companies that are best at making the products that people want to buy.  These are huge implicit costs–the costs that are not seen–that are happily swept under the rug by Obama administration officials.

It is also highly likely that the timing of the IPO talk is politically motivated.  Democrats want to have a business success to tout for their campaigns this fall.  But there is the real prospect that that the IPO won’t raise anywhere near the amount of cash to make taxpayers whole, which could generate a lot of bad press before the election.  With economic growth and auto sales prospects apparently in doubt and the $41,000 Chevy Volt about to be unveiled when gas prices are relatively low, investors may not be ready to own GM stock.

They Should Earn Our Trust

Ronald Brownstein points to the many measures showing Americans have lost confidence in their government and in some private institutions.  He concludes that these signs of distrust “point toward a widely shared conviction that the country’s public and private leadership is protecting its own interest at the expense of average (and even comfortable) Americans.”

Maybe. But there is another interpretation. Consider the recent performance of the government and of more than a few businesses. Most Americans do not pay attention to the details of governing. They have other things to occupy their time. They do, however, notice important matters like war and the economy. Since about 2004, Americans have steadily soured on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The economy remains weak despite promises to the contrary from the current administration. Banks and auto companies flouted the presumed rules of the capitalist game by seeking and taking bailouts when bankruptcy loomed.

The last nine years have given the public little reason to have confidence in the performance of the federal government and of some business leaders. The lack of public confidence Brownstein notes might better be seen as a rational response to what is becoming a decade of incompetence in DC combined with bad faith elsewhere.

Don’t Be Fooled — GM Is Still Government Motors

General Motors chairman Ed Whitacre is appearing in ads on all the Sunday morning shows repeating the message of his Wall Street Journal op-ed, titled “The GM Bailout: Paid Back in Full,” and the company’s full-page newspaper ads:

We’re proud to announce: We’ve repaid our government loan. In full. With interest. Five years ahead of the original schedule.

But wait: In the Wall Street Journal, Whitacre says the company has made a $5.8 billion payment to the governments of the United States and Canada. But don’t I recall that the GM bailout was $50 billion? Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation explains the whole story in Forbes: First, part of the bailout went into an “escrow fund,” and that government money is being used to pay back the small part of the bailout that was officially a loan. Second, GM is asking for another $10 billion loan to retool its plants to meet the stiffer Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, and paying back one government loan – with other government money – will make it easier to get another government loan.

And finally, of course, most of the bailout money was transferred to GM in return for a 60 percent stake in the company. And the taxpayers will get that money back if and when GM becomes a publicly traded company again, provided that the company’s market capitalization is eventually higher than it’s ever been in history. Don’t hold your breath.

These are called GM ads, but they could just as well be called BS ads.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week: