As Overseer And Owner, U.S. Aims For Balance

Debate Intensifies As Federal Sway Grows at Firms

As a partial owner of Citigroup, the U.S. has reshaped the firm's board.
As a partial owner of Citigroup, the U.S. has reshaped the firm's board. (By Mark Lennihan -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 29, 2009

The owner of a car company can decide how many cars to make, to paint red, to send to Maryland dealerships. The Obama administration, which plans to buy about 70 percent of General Motors, insists it does not want to be that kind of owner.

Senior officials say they are focused solely on forcing critical financial repairs at GM and other companies in which the government plans to take large ownership stakes. They do not want to get dragged into the weeds of daily decision-making.

But it's not easy to keep hands in pockets. In pursuing its financial goals, the administration has become involved in decisions such as how many cars GM and Chrysler should make, how much money auto financier GMAC should lend and which business units Citigroup should sell. The government also increasingly has chosen to install its own directors on the companies' boards, establishing influence that could endure for years.

Not since World War II has the federal government exerted so much influence over so many private companies. The Obama administration, which inherited majority stakes in American International Group, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is in the process of buying large stakes in four more companies: GM, Chrysler, Citigroup and GMAC.

As the government continues to deepen its involvement, officials say they are trying to find the right balance between their conclusion that no one else can fix the companies and their concern that public ownership is inherently corrosive. But even within the administration, there is debate about where to draw that line. And now that the door is open, others are piling through.

An array of advocacy groups, including unions, environmental advocates and shareholder activists, see opportunities to wrest long-sought concessions from businesses that are now beholden to taxpayers. The government has been sucked into political controversies over the size of executive paychecks and bonuses, the employment of foreign workers and the right steps to prevent home foreclosures.

Meanwhile, businesses and industry groups warn that government disrespect for contracts or investors will shake market confidence for years.

"Anything they do here will be part of the history and the record as far as the markets go," said a senior executive at one of the companies in which the government plans to take a stake. "You're not playing for the next two years, you're playing for the next 100 years."

Senior officials say the investments have been necessary because the firms have needed money and could not afford to repay new loans. They say the government is focused on clearing a path for the companies to return to health, then allowing private owners to complete the work.

"The broad principles are: Get out as quickly as possible, do what's necessary to ensure that there's a viable business plan being competently implemented and stay out of the day-to-day," Lawrence H. Summers, President Obama's chief economic adviser, said in an interview.

Summers and other officials say public involvement damages companies, largely by creating political uncertainties. The administration, for instance, cannot control demands from Congress, which in turn is subject to the whims of voters. This scares away customers, freezes long-term planning and makes it harder to compete with rivals, experts say. There also can be conflicts between the public interest and maximizing profits.

To avoid those issues, the government at first attempted to support companies with loans. Citigroup, for example, got $45 billion to help it absorb loan losses. GM got $13.4 billion, buying it several months to create its own restructuring plan.

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