Tag: auto industry

Goodbye, Secretary LaHood

Just 12 hours ago I expressed disappointment that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had expressed his intent of “sticking around for a while” as a cabinet member in President Obama’s second term. Now – I suppose it’s just coincidence – LaHood says he’s departing after all. Promoted as the Republican in the Obama cabinet (at least the one left after the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates), the former Illinois Congressman has been a veritable fount of anti-libertarian proposals and regrettable policy decisions over the past four years: 

  • LaHood’s best-known crusade, against “distracted driving,” enthusiastically built on earlier Washington initiatives muscling into traffic laws formerly decided at the state and local level. While he did back off earlier press reports that had him favoring a national ban on cellphone use in cars, even handsfree, he promoted such wacky ideas as having cops peer down into cars from overpasses to see whether drivers are paying enough attention to the road, and mandating technologies that would automatically disconnect phones in moving cars (what could go wrong?).
  • Known while in Congress as friendly toward pork-barrel projects, LaHood provided a bipartisan gloss for his free-spending department: the Post recounts his efforts “helping implement billions of dollars in transportation projects from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and promoting the plan to wary Republicans.” Combining his two enthusiasms, LaHood pushed a program of local “nanny grants” that drew resistance from House Republicans.
  • After trial lawyers and feckless reporters ginned up an “unintended acceleration” scare against Toyota, LaHood wasn’t in a position to reverse the engineering judgment of the career technical staff at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who concluded the scare (like earlier ones against Audi and other makes) was bogus. But he seems to have done what he could to make life hard for the foreign-owned automaker, levying heavy fines over disclosure issues and delaying the release of the technical findings exculpating the company. Some felt that as a high officer of a government that had taken over and was running competitors GM and Chrysler, LaHood was in a bit of a conflicted position as judge-and-sentencer of Detroit’s envied Japanese rival.
  • Early speculation on a replacement includes the name of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He’d probably leave me nostalgic for LaHood.

An Insider’s Account of the White House’s Unseemly Tactics in the Chrysler Bailout

A Wall Street Journal editorial this morning points out that Indiana Republican Senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock is getting pounded by his Democratic rival for having opposed the Chrysler bailout.

Mourdock opposed the bailout on principle, but at that time he was also the Indiana state treasurer and fiduciary for several state pension funds, including two holding the retirement resources of Indiana police officers and school teachers, which owned about $42 million dollars of “secured” Chrysler debt in 2009. When Mourdock rejected the administration’s offer of $0.29 for each dollar of debt held, his position was publicly excoriated by President Obama as greedy, unpatriotic, and reflecting and unwillingness to ”sacrifice for the greater good.”  There’s much more to this story.

If you are interested in a first hand account of the strong-arm tactics, threats, and intimidation employed by the White House to get its own Chrysler bankruptcy plan rubber stamped through the process in 2009, you will want to see this video of Mourdock speaking at a Cato event.  It is truthful and chilling.

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.

Raising an Eyebrow at LaHood’s Toyota Remarks

In response to the large recalls affecting several Toyota models, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday advised Americans to “stop driving” their Toyotas. In testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, LaHood said:

My advice to anyone who owns one of these vehicles is stop driving it, and take it to the Toyota dealership because they believe they have the fix for it.

Later in the day, he elaborated:

I want to encourage owners of any recalled Toyota models to contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible. NHTSA will continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.

As Transportation Secretary in an administration that is politically vested in the success of General Motors (recall how taxpayers were forced to take a 60% stake in GM for $50 billion+), was LaHood exploiting an opportunity to tip the scales further in GM’s favor? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but as long as GM remains nationalized, any comments by administration officials on matters affecting the auto industry should be viewed skeptically and through this prism, as they can irresponsibly move markets.

The Real Story Behind the Chrysler Bankruptcy

If you worry about the abuse of executive power and declining respect among elected officials for the rule of law, you should watch this eloquent illumination of what really went down in the Chrysler bankruptcy earlier this year. The speaker is Richard Mourdock, Treasurer of the state of Indiana. The setting is a Cato Institute policy forum on October 15 about the “sordid details of the Bush/Obama auto industry intervention.”

As state treasurer, Mourdock is the person responsible for investment decisions concerning Indiana’s state employee pension funds, some of which owned a small share of Chrysler’s $6.9 billion in secured debt and some of which opposed the administration’s offer of $.29 on the dollar for that debt. Though these small secured holders were publicly castigated by President Obama as “unpatriotic” and unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good, Mourdock led the effort to stop the “sale” of Chrysler all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mourdock’s presentation gives a flavor for the tactics employed by the  Obama administration to “encourage” senior, priority creditors to back off their claims so that chosen parties could take priority—tactics that included backroom reminders that some of those creditors had received and might seek more TARP funding, threats of bringing the full weight and measure of the White House press office to bear down on dissenters, public condemnation, and other forms of arm-twisting most Americans would find unseemly for a U.S. presidential administration.

At the Cato event, Mr. Mourdock was joined by University of Pennsylvania Law School professor and corporate law expert David Skeel, who demonstrated quite clearly that the “sale” of Chrysler, as orchestrated by the Obama administration under cover of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, was indeed a sham sale. Skeel’s presentation begins at 20:15 of this video.

If you want to have a better sense of what’s going on in Washington (or to affirm your worries), I recommend you watch Mourdock here, listen to Mourdock here, read the Indiana Pensioners’ petition for Writ of Certiorari (appeal to the Supreme Court), and read the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in support of the Indiana pensioners here.

Buy American Hurts Most Americans

Earlier today, Doug Bandow weighed in with some commentary on the problems that Buy American provisions are creating for both Canadian and American businesses. Let me reinforce his view that such rules are anachronistic and self-defeating with some thoughts from a forthcoming paper of mine about the incongruity between modern commercial reality and trade policies that have failed to keep pace.

Even though President Obama implored, “If you are considering buying a car, I hope it will be an American car,” it is nearly impossible to determine objectively what makes an American car. The auto industry provides a famous example, but is really just one of many that transcends national boundaries and renders obsolete the notion of international competition as a contest between “our” producers and “their” producers. The same holds true for industries throughout the manufacturing sector.

Dell is a well known American brand and Nokia a popular Finnish brand, but neither makes its products in the United States or Finland, respectively. Some components of products bearing the logos of these internationally recognized brands might be produced in the “home country.” But with much greater frequency nowadays, component production and assembly operations are performed in different locations across the global factory floor. As IBM’s chief executive officer put it: “State borders define less and less the boundaries of corporate thinking or practice.”

The distinction between what is and what isn’t American or Finnish or Chinese or Indian has been blurred by foreign direct investment, cross-ownership, equity tie-ins, and transnational supply chains. In the United States, foreign and domestic value-added is so entangled in so many different products that even the Buy American provisions in the recently-enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, struggle to define an American product without conceding the inanity of the objective.

The Buy American Act restricts the purchase of supplies that are not domestic end products.  For manufactured end products, the Buy American Act uses a two-part test to define a domestic end product: (1) The article must be manufactured in the United States; and (2) The cost of domestic components must exceed 50 percent of the cost of all the components. Thus, the operational definition of an American product includes the recognition that “purebred” American products are increasingly rare.

Shake your head and chuckle as you learn that even the “DNA” of the U.S. steel industry, which pushed for adoption of the most restrictive Buy American provisions and which has been the manufacturing sector’s most vocal proponent of trade barriers over the years, is difficult to decipher nowadays. The largest U.S. producer of steel is the majority Indian-owned company Arcelor-Mittal. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is in the process of completing a $3.7 billion green field investment in a carbon and stainless steel production facility in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 permanent jobs. And most of the carbon steel shipped from U.S. rolling mills—as finished hot-rolled or cold-rolled steel, or as pipe and tube—is produced in places like Canada, Brazil and Russia, and as such is disqualified from use in U.S. government procurement projects for failure to meet the statutory definition of American-made steel.

Whereas a generation ago the cost of a product bearing the logo of an American company may have comprised exclusively U.S. labor, materials, and overhead, today that is much less likely to be the case. Today, that product is more likely to reflect foreign value-added, regardless of whether the product was “completed” in the United States or abroad. Accordingly, Buy American rules and trade barriers of any kind (as appealing to politicians as they may be) hurt most American businesses, workers, and consumers.

It’s time to wake up and scrap these stupid rules.

GM’s Last Capitalist Act: Filing for Bankruptcy Protection

It’s not as if we didn’t know this was going to happen to GM for a long time now.

GM’s bankruptcy announcement today is perhaps the least shocking news we’ve heard about the company in more than seven months. It might well be remembered as the company’s last act of capitalism.

If GM emerges from bankruptcy organized and governed by the plan created by the Obama administration, it is impossible to see how free markets will have anything to do with the U.S. auto industry. With taxpayers on the hook for $50 billion (at a minimum), the administration will do whatever it has to – including tilting the playing field with policies that induce consumers to buy GM or hamstring GM’s competition or subsidize its costs – in order for GM to succeed.

Thus, what’s going to happen to Ford? With the public aware that the administration will go to bat for GM, who will want to own Ford stock?  Who will lend Ford money (particularly in light of the way GM’s and Chrysler’s bondholders were treated).  Who wants to compete against an entity backed by an unrestrained national treasury?

Ultimately, if I’m a member of Ford management or a large shareholder, I’m thinking that my biggest competitors, who’ve made terrible business decisions over the years, just got their debts erased and their downsides covered.  Thus, even if my balance sheet is healthy enough to go it alone, why bother?  And that calculation presents the specter of another taxpayer bailout to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars, and another government-run auto company.