Tag: gm

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.

GM IPO ASAP, SVP

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.

The FTC and Those GM Ads

I’m usually in enthusiastic accord with our friends over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but it seems to me they’ve made a mistake by petitioning the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on GM’s ridiculous “we repaid our federal loan” ad. Some zealous enforcers would love for the FTC to do more to regulate speech by American business on matters of public concern, and it seems to me the last thing we should do is encourage such a trend.

For those who came in late, General Motors and its CEO Ed Whitmire were widely and rightly assailed here and elsewhere for asserting (in a column whose message was repeated in much-played TV ads) that the company had repaid its bailout loan “in full, with interest, years ahead of schedule.” Actually, as the inspector general of the government’s TARP program readily acknowledged, the firm had merely used one pot of federal money to repay another. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley helped expose the dodge, and publications ranging from FoxNews.com to the New York Times joined in with scathing coverage.

Yesterday CEI announced that it had filed a formal complaint [PDF] with the FTC urging the commission to investigate the automaker’s ad campaign as misleading. It alleges that the ad campaign “could unfairly dupe consumers into a false, renewed confidence in the company” and that “consumer purchasing decisions can easily be affected by such considerations.” Nick Gillespie at Reason, CEI general counsel Hans Bader, and Todd Zywicki at Volokh have more.

There’s a long history of businesses’ responding to public criticism of their operations or products – and getting in further legal or regulatory trouble because of that very response. In one early case, the FTC went after egg producers for asserting, in the midst of a cholesterol scare that in hindsight appears overblown, that their ovoid wares were not in fact a menace to cardiac health. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence have asked the FTC to prohibit ads that imply that keeping a loaded weapon on hand will make a family safer. In Nike v. Kasky, a famous case that reached the Supreme Court [Thomas Goldstein, Cato Supreme Court Review 2003, PDF], shoemaker Nike was sued under a California law over the public defense it had put forward of its labor practices in overseas factories. Environmentalists have sought to suppress ads claiming that nuclear power is nonpolluting, and so forth.

Free-market advocates have generally argued that whatever the merits of laws or regulations banning misleading advertising in garden-variety commercial contexts, there are special dangers to the First Amendment and to robust debate generally in letting agencies and courts second-guess the content of “issue ads” and speech on topics of public controversy. To begin with, it encourages advocates to turn to the law to silence disagreeable speech rather than muster their best arguments to rebut it. In one grotesque example, MoveOn.org and Common Cause actually petitioned the FTC to institute a complaint against Fox News over its use of the slogan “Fair and Balanced”, since (they said) the network was neither.

Despite its current dependence on government, GM is in every relevant legal sense a private company, so any precedents forged against it will wind up applying to every other private enterprise that might wish to advertise on matters of public controversy. Which makes it a concern that CEI’s complaint cites with seeming enthusiasm broad FTC interpretations of authority – for example, its authority to suppress speech that might not be in itself false but could leave a potentially misleading impression.

If there is a continuum extending from more or less purely commercial speech (“Our tires last 40,000 miles”) to more or less purely political speech (“Our business is badly overtaxed”), GM’s ad campaign surely falls way over toward the “political” side. CEI’s response to this is to argue that the campaign might influence consumers’ purely economic calculations (as opposed to the political reasons they have to feel angry at GM) by making them more likely to see the company as solvent and thus as capable of making good its warranty promises. The words “strained” and “makeweight” come to mind to describe this argument. Does CEI really want to establish the future principle that a company’s over-sunny talk about its financial prospects will henceforth get it in trouble with two federal agencies, the FTC and SEC, rather than the SEC alone?

It all seems a rather high price to pay in principle for keeping the GM-TARP story in the papers for another day or two.

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.

Global Markets Keep U.S. Economy Afloat

Three items in the news this week remind us why we should be glad we live in a more global economy. While American consumers remain cautious, American companies and workers are finding increasing opportunities in markets abroad:

  • Sales of General Motors vehicles continue to slump in the United States, but they are surging in China. The company announced this week that sales in China of GM-branded cars and trucks were up 67 percent in 2009, to 1.8 million vehicles. If current trends continue, within a year or two GM will be selling more vehicles in China than in the United States.
  • James Cameron’s 3-D movie spectacular “Avatar” just surpassed $1 billion in global box-office sales. Two-thirds of its revenue has come from abroad, with France, Germany, and Russia the leading markets. This has been a growing pattern for U.S. films. Hollywood—which loves to skewer business and capitalism—is thriving in a global market.
  • Since 2003, the middle class in Brazil has grown by 32 million. As the Washington Post reports, “Once hobbled with high inflation and perennially susceptible to worldwide crises, Brazil now has a vibrant consumer market …” Brazil’s overall economy is bigger than either India or Russia, and its per-capita GDP is nearly double that of China.

As I note in my Cato book Mad about Trade, American companies and workers will find their best opportunities in the future by selling to the emerging global middle class in Brazil, China, India and elsewhere. Without access to more robust markets abroad, the Great Recession of 2008-09 would have been more like the Great Depression.

Mainstream Media’s Trade Gap

In a post at the Enterprise Blog two days ago, economist Mark Perry deftly parodies a typical mainstream media account of trade protectionism by editing the story in redline to contrast its original presentation with its true significance. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s the first paragraph:

WASHINGTON POST (Reuters) - A U.S. trade panel gave final approval on Wednesday to duties taxes ranging from 10 to 16 percent on cost-conscious firms in the U.S. who purchase low-priced Chinese-made steel pipe rather than high-price domestic pipe, in the biggest U.S. trade case to date against China American companies (and their shareholders, employees, and customers) who shop globally for their inputs and find the best value in China.

Perry’s point—and I share his frustration—is that the mainstream media typically fail to convey even a sense of the costs of U.S. protectionism to U.S. interests even though Americans (and non-Americans living in the U.S.) bear the greatest burden of that protectionism. When the U.S. government imposes duties on Chinese steel, it is imposing taxes on U.S. consuming industries, their employees, their shareholders, and their customers.

Considering that more than half of the value of all U.S. imports in a typical year is raw materials and intermediate goods (i.e., inputs for producers operating in the United States, who employ people, transact with other businesses, and pay taxes in the United States), the number of U.S. victims of U.S. import taxes is much larger than one can ever glean from a typical media account. Taxes on Chinese-made ”Oil Country Tubular Goods” or OCTG (the subject in the article Perry edits), which are used for oil exploration and transport, will raise costs in the energy industry, which are likely to be passed onto consumers in the form of higher energy prices.

As described in this paper, trade is no longer a competition between “Us and Them.” There is competition between entities that—because of the proliferation of cross-border investment and transnational production and supply chains—often defy any meaningful national identification. But that competition is preceded by collaboration and cooperation between entities in different countries. The factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans borders and oceans—a fact that renders U.S. workers and workers in other countries complementary in more and more cases, and a fact that amplifies the cost of trade barriers.

But media—chained to the false “Us versus Them” paradigm—describe protectionist policies as actions taken by one national monolith against another, and convey the impression that American readers should be cheering for Team America. It is a worldview that conflates the well-being of “our producers” with some homogenized conception of “the national interest.” It is the same misguided scoreboard mentality that colors reporting of the trade account, where exports are deemed “good” and imports “bad.”  And, it is this simplistic, misleading characterization that, in my opinion, is most responsible for withering public opinion about trade and globalization over the past decade.

I look forward to more of Dr. Perry’s editing projects.

How to Kill a Company: A Beginner’s Guide (Chapter 1, P. 1.)

As described in the current Cato Policy Report, one of the “Hard Lessons from the Auto Bailout” is that management at GM is likely to be “highly erratic, as the president and Congress wrestle for decisionmaking primacy at this majority taxpayer-owned entity.”  The “dealerships” issue is Exhibit A.

One of GM’s first decisions upon emerging from bankruptcy was to announce closures of a number of dealerships to help reduce costs. Then-nominal-CEO Fritz Henderson explained that the planned closings would save GM about $100 in distribution costs per vehicle–a few hundred million dollars per year when factoring in the millions of units GM expects to produce.

But many of GM’s congressional CEOs cried foul, demanding reconsideration from a company that had taken public funds.  The House of Representatives even passed a bill requiring companies that received federal funds to reestablish terminated dealership agreements, though no action was taken in the Senate.

However, as reported in The Hill today, Congress is fast-tracking legislation to restrict GM’s (and Chrysler’s) closings, by subjecting each decision to an arbitrator, who will “balance the economic interests of the terminated dealership, the car companies and the general public.”  A Senate aide is cited as saying legislators intend to pass this measure before Christmas.

Well, look, EVERY decision GM makes will produce winners and losers in terms of real and opportunity costs.   Hence, EVERY decision is just as worthy of legislative or executive scrutiny, if the dealership issue is the litmus test. 

With 537 CEOs, all but one of whom have bigger priorities than GM’s bottom line, GM’s future will be dictated by splitting differences, political logrolling, and managing by consensus–tactics that will assure GM’s demise.