Tag: general motors

If the Auto Bailout Was a Success, I’d Hate to See What a Failure Looks Like

Sometimes it’s no fun to be an economist. Or, to be more specific, it’s rather frustrating to understand Bastiat’s insight about the “seen” and the “unseen” and to always be asking “at what cost?” and “to what effect?” when politicians make inane statements.

The GM bailout is a good example. Politicians want us to believe that it was a success because the company is still in business. Heck, the Vice President’s favorite campaign statement is that “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive

But if you’re the type of person who recognizes the importance of tradeoffs and incentives, then it’s easy to see how a political success can be an economic failure. Which is the message of this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation.

This is music to my ears. I’ve been saying for years that any company can be kept afloat indefinitely with taxpayers subsidies. So if that’s the definition of success, we can party until we hit the fiscal brick wall. But that wall won’t feel good, as we can see from the fiscal chaos in Greece and other European welfare states.

But this issue involves more than just inefficient subsidies. I’m also concerned about the corruption that inevitably exists when cronyism replaces capitalism.

It’s quite likely, after all, that GM is spending lots of money on the Chevy Volt because of pressure from Washington rather than demand from consumers. And when you have a car company executive endorsing higher gas taxes, it’s reasonable to think that he’s currying favor with the political masters in DC rather than looking out for the best interests of drivers.

The GM bailout may be a win-win situation for politicians and lobbyists, but it’s a lose-lose proposition for taxpayers and the economy.

P.S. If you want some auto bailout humor, here’s a spoof on the Chevy Volt, an advertisement for the new GM Obummer, a couple of good political cartoons, and a very funny video on the Pelosi GTxi SS/RT.

President Obama and the Auto Industry

Back from vacation, I’m catching up on things I missed last week. Dan Ikenson did a fine job on President Obama’s boasting about how he saved the automobile industry. But a few days later Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker,” was more brutal:

We take no view on whether the administration’s efforts on behalf of the automobile industry were a good or bad thing; that’s a matter for the editorial pages and eventually the historians. But we are interested in the facts the president cited to make his case.

What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.

Here’s a sample of the specific analyses:

“GM plans to hire back all of the workers they had to lay off during the recession.”

This is another impressive-sounding but misleading figure. In the five years since 2006, General Motors announced that it would reduce its workforce by nearly 68,000 hourly and salary workers, creating a much smaller company. Those are the figures that generated the headlines.

Obama is only talking about a sliver of workers — the 9,600 workers who were laid off in the fourth quarter of 2008.

And that’s why President Obama’s speech was awarded Three Pinocchios.

Monday Links

  • It is false to assume that GM’s earnings report means the auto bailout was a success.
  • It is false that, among other things, failing to raise the debt limit means defaulting on our obligations.
  • It is false that Osama bin Laden’s death means torture is a good idea.
  • It is false that international institutions can deliver what they say they can deliver.
  • It is false that oil speculators are to blame for fluctuating oil prices:


Obama’s GM Quagmire

Media are reporting this morning that the Treasury has decided to hold off on selling any of its remaining 500 million shares of General Motors stock until at least July. The Obama administration had hoped to divest as soon as possible  after May 22, but GM’s stock price hasn’t been cooperating.

As much as the president doesn’t want the odor of nationalization following him on the campaign trail, the administration is equally concerned about having to explain why it took a $10 billion to $20 billion direct loss by divesting when it did. By deferring sales until July, the administration presumably is hoping for a stock price boost from second quarter earnings. But that is unlikely for several reasons, which I explained in the Daily Caller yesterday. Here’s the gist in a few passages from that op-ed:

The soonest the U.S. Treasury can sell the remaining 500 million shares (according to terms of the initial public offering) is May 22, but the administration would also like to “make the taxpayers whole.” The problem for the president on that score is that the stock price — even in the wake of this week’s earnings report — isn’t cooperating. As of this morning’s opening bell, GM stock was valued at $31.07 per share. If all of the 500 million remaining publicly-owned shares could be sold at that price, the Treasury would net less than $16 billion. Add that to the $23 billion raised from the initial public offering last November, and the “direct” public loss on GM is about $11 billion — calculated as a $50 billion outlay minus a $39 billion return.

To net $50 billion, those 500 million public shares must be sold at an average price of just over $53 — a virtual impossibility anytime soon. Why? The most significant factor suppressing the stock value is the market’s knowledge that the largest single holder of GM stock wants to unload about 500 million shares in the short term. That fact will continue to trump any positive news about GM and its profit potential, not that such news should be expected.

Projections about gasoline prices vary, but as long as prices at the pump remain in the $4 range, GM is going to suffer. Among major automakers, GM is most exposed to the downside of high gasoline prices. Despite all of the subsidies and all of the hoopla over the Chevy Volt (only 1,700 units have been sold through April 2011) and the Chevy Cruse (now subject to a steering column recall that won’t help repair negative quality perceptions), GM does not have much of a competitive presence in the small car market. Though GM held the largest overall U.S. market share in 2010, it had the smallest share (8.4%) of the small car market, which is where the demand will be if high gas prices persist. GM will certainly have to do better in that segment once the federally mandated average fleet fuel efficiency standards rise to 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016.

Deservedly reaping what it sowed, the administration finds itself in an unenviable position. It can entirely divest of GM in the short term at what would likely be a $10-to-$15 billion taxpayer loss (the stock price will drop if 500 million shares are put up for sale in a short period) and face the ire of an increasingly cost- and budget-conscious electorate. Or the administration can hold onto the stock, hoping against hope that GM experiences economic fortunes good enough to more than compensate for the stock price-suppressing effect of the market’s knowledge of an imminent massive sale, while contending with accusations of market meddling and industrial policy.

Or, the administration can do what it is going to do: First, lower expectations that the taxpayer will ever recover $50 billion. Here’s a recent statement by Tim Geithner: “We’re going to lose money in the auto industry… We didn’t do these things to maximize return. We did them to save jobs. The biggest impact of these programs was in the millions of jobs saved.” That’s a safe counterfactual, since it can never be tested or proved. (There are 225,000 fewer jobs in the auto industry as of March 2011 than there were in November 2008, when the bailout process began.)

Second, the administration will argue that the Obama administration is only on the hook for $40 billion (the first $10 billion having come from Bush). In a post-IPO, November 2010 statement revealing of a man less concerned with the nation’s finances than his own political prospects, President Obama asserted: “American taxpayers are now positioned to recover more than my administration invested in GM, and that’s a good thing.” (My emphasis).

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.

President’s Statement about GM IPO Reveals a Defensive Politician

I don’t particularly relish picking on a president who, on virtually every policy front, is showing all the markings of a man in way over his head.  But the president’s actions and statements are becoming excruciating to watch—like a highly-touted Olympic figure skater who can’t complete a maneuver without falling to the ice. 

President Obama’s salutary statement about GM’s IPO yesterday reveals a man so focused on defending his policies that he can no longer conceal the incongruity between his political objectives and the country’s imperatives.

American taxpayers are now positioned to recover more than my administration invested in GM, and that’s a good thing. (My emphasis)

Besides revealing the president’s preference for LIFO accounting procedures, the statement strikes me as sub-presidential.  Shouldn’t the POTUS be concerned about  American taxpayers getting back all of the money invested in GM?  Even though former President Bush is complicit, shouldn’t the sitting president of a country that owes its wealth, freedom, and future to the endurance of the rule of law and the other long-standing, bedrock institutions that were defiled and abused to bail out two automakers issue a statement of regret and reassurance that such extreme measures will never be undertaken again? 

I think President Obama missed an opportunity to make amends, build a bridge, and reassure businesses and investors that the White House will do its part to reduce the economy-stifling problem of regime uncertainty going forward.  But, then again, that might have been too presidential for a politician who appears motivated more by avoiding blame than by advancing the country’s best interests.

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.

“Government Motors”: NPR’s Gaffe?

NPR’s 9:00 a.m. newscast this morning included this accidentally accurate line:

Government, rather General Motors is expected to announce plans for an initial public offering of stock this week.

The comment can be heard here at about 3:10, but I assume the online hourly report is updated throughout the day.

For more on Government Motors, click here.

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