Congress should seriously consider bankruptcy as an alternative to federal aid for the financially stricken Chrysler Corp., one of the government's top antitrust officials said yesterday.
As the kickoff witness at Senate Banking Committee hearings on Chrysler's plight, Alfred F. Dougherty Jr. director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Competition, questioned the company's claim that bankruptcy would trigger dire consequences.
"Reorganization in bankruptcy is admittedly a risky strategy for Chrysler's survival," said Dougherty. "Nevertheless, a serious examination should be undertaken to weigh these risks against those entailed by federal assistance."
Dougherty said the key to whether Chrysler would survive a bankruptcy reorganization is consumer reaction, which he said is currently an unknown.
"If sales hold up, the dealership system and possibly Chrysler's supplier network are likely to remain intact . . . Current publicity and uncertainty surrounding the company does not appear to have kept people from buying Chrysler's cars to date, although actual bankruptcy is a different matter and may well produce a more adverse reaction than have current conditions," he said.
The hearings, which will continue today and tomorrow, are being held as the Carter administration attempts to reach agreement with Chrysler on a federal loan guarantee package. Chrysler, claiming it faces a cash shortfall of $2.1 billion over the next two years, asked the government last month for $1.2 billion in loan guarantees. Treasury Secretary G. William Miller said the administration would consider a pared-down proposal of $500 million to $750 million.
Dougherty, echoed by Department of Transportation officials who have examined Chrysler's problems, said the company had taken significant steps to correct internal problems but has yet to justly its claims that it can regain profitability after only short-term federal aid. Moreover, said Dougherty, Congress must consider the fact that its Chrysler action "may set the precedent for future requests from other companies."
Howard Dugoff, research administrator for the Department of Transportation, said he thought Chrysler's survival plan offers a "reasonable prospect for survival" but declined to go farther.
The witnesses provided a kind of middle ground between Banking Committee Chairman William Proxmire (D-Wis), who opposes federal aid to Chrysler, and Sen. Donald W. Riegie (D-Mich.), who argues that, without it, a Chrysler bankruptcy would send "shock waves" through the economy and cost the federal treasury up to $10 billion in lost revenues, unemployment assistance and welfare payments.
Noting that the government has about $240 billion in outstanding loan guarantees, many to private companies, Riegie said it was "missing the point" to suggest that Congress was setting a dangerous precedent by helping Chrysler, especially with 600,000 jobs at stake.
Proximire rejected suggestions that a Chrysler bankruptcy would shut down all company operations and added that a Chrysler bailout would signal to other companies that nothing matters "so long as you can muster enough interest groups to fight your cause in Washington -- at the same time that you are losing it in the marketplace.