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Post Partisan
Posted at 03:39 PM ET, 06/03/2011

A reality check on the auto bailout


Some kind of auto bailout was probably a necessary evil, given the huge hit that the economy would have suffered otherwise at a moment – early 2009 – when we were looking at a possible Great Depression II. But I think the Obama administration should have let the hapless Chrysler die – if only to spare GM the competition. And President Obama’s auto team should have acted much more like a real private equity firm when it restructured the companies, instead of letting Obama’s political ally, the United Auto Workers, escape without much steeper wage and benefit cuts. In any case, the entire cost-benefit analysis turns on a whole lot of counterfactuals, so it’ll probably never be settled.

Given that ambivalent attitude, it should come as no surprise that I insist on playing wet blanket at the president’s auto bailout victory party. It’s a helpful role, really, because celebrating the GM and Chrysler rescues may undermine them. As any industry insider will tell you, the “government motors” stigma is still hurting GM and Chrysler among potential car-buyers. And the more the President talks about the federal money he spent on the two companies, even in a positive vein, the harder it is to re-establish their brands. Politically, I can see why Obama would want to boast. When it comes to the economic interests of both the companies and the taxpayers, however, the less he says, the better.

And then there’s the spin. A Treasury fact sheet entitled “The Resurgence of the American Automotive Industry”claims that “Since GM and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, the auto industry has created 115,000 jobs, its strongest period of job growth since the late 1990s.” Now, a casual reader of that sentence might think it means the Detroit Three -- GM, Chrysler, and their unbailed rival, Ford – created 115,000 jobs since June 2009, when the bankruptcy proceedings wrapped up. Indeed, the next sentence refers to renewed profitability at “GM, Ford and Chrysler,” as well as increased market share for the Detroit 3 in 2010.

Actually, as Treasury officials acknowledged when I called, the administration’s definition of “auto industry” includes not only the Detroit 3, but also all of the plants operated by foreign car makers in the U.S., the entire supply chain and all car dealerships around the country! This is fair, to the extent one agrees with the administration that bailing out GM and Chrysler at taxpayer expense helped prevent a wider meltdown for Ford, the parts suppliers, foreign companies, and everyone else who depends on them. And, to be sure, the fact sheet says that saving GM and Chrysler was also about saving the companies and workers that “depend on the automotive industry.”

Still, I wonder how many people listening to the President and reading the Treasury fact sheet are really going to grasp these fine, and implicit, distinctions? At least I would have given the administration a lot more points for candor if they made clear that the vast majority of the job growth they are touting did not take place at the Detroit 3’s auto plants. One hundred fifteen thousand jobs sounds like a lot — especially if you mistakenly think of them as production jobs at the Detroit 3 -- but it represents a modest five percent increase in employment by the expansively defined “auto industry” since it bottomed out at 2.25 million in June 2009.

In reality, the administration necessarily demanded that GM and Chrysler shut plants, close dealerships and lay off workers as a condition of government aid; GM alone closed a dozen factories and slashed 20,000 jobs — on top of the tens of thousands of jobs that had previously been lost in the recession. My industry sources tell me it’s far from clear how many of those jobs have come back, let alone if new ones have been “created.” If you read it closely, the Treasury fact sheet uses terms like ”preserve” and “retain” to characterize the bailout’s impact on jobs at GM and Chrysler factories -- as in the $843 million Chrysler is spending on its Kokomo, Indiana factory, to “retain” nearly 2,250 jobs.

We’re not talking about investments in brand-new production capacity like, say, Volkswagen’s new Passat plant in union-free Tennessee, which really did create 1,700 jobs – not counting the supply chain, dealers and the rest. If VW’s venture succeeds, of course, it will be at the expense of GM workers who make the rival Malibu, but that’s capitalism!

And what about market share? No doubt the Detroit 3 have, for now, stabilized their percentage of shrinking U.S. car and light truck sales in the mid-40s – down from 80 percent a quarter-century ago. But we’re talking small and, given the ferocious competition, tentative increments. The increased 2010 share that the administration touts amounted to 0.9 percent of the market, divided among GM, Ford and Chrysler – with big gains at bailout-free Ford offsetting big losses at GM.

The Detroit 3 have indeed snagged additional share in 2011, in part because of good new products such as GM’s Chevy Cruze – and in part because of the natural disaster that crippled their Japanese competitors.

To me, though, the numbers suggest that Detroit has done relatively poorly at exploiting Japan’s misfortune. From January through May of this year, Toyota and Honda lost a whopping 2.5 percent of combined market share compared to the same period last year. GM, Ford and Chrysler gained a combined 0.8 percent of it – less than a third Korea’s Hyundai/Kia, by contrast, seized 1.4 percent of the market, more than half of the terrain Japan lost. (The remaining 0.3 percent went to others.) As anyone can tell you from watching the traffic go by around the Washington metro area, the big story in new car sales these days is not the Americans but the Koreans.

And the moral of that story is sobering for GM, Chrysler and the taxpayers who bailed them out: While the U.S. firms have been struggling to get back on their feet, others kept on racing ahead.

By  |  03:39 PM ET, 06/03/2011

 
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