ASK YOURSELF THE question the way Ronald Reagan put it in the 1980 campaign: Are you better off today because of the Chrysler bailout five years ago?
The question is not a trivial pursuit. In some ways it encapsulates the national debate about what role the government should play in efforts to revive American industry generally. In the current contest for the Democratic nomination for president, Walter F. Mondale and Gary W. Hart have both made the Chrysler bailout an issue, Mondale singing its praises and Hart criticizing it. Reagan opposed the Chrysler rescue.
So what were the real costs and real benefits of the Chrysler policy? There were both, which makes a clearcut assessment difficult. An honest evaluation has to take into account political factors as well as economic ones.
The bailout saved the Chrysler Corporation as a business. Until Congress authorized the Treasury Department to guarantee $1.5 billion in bank loans to Chrysler in month, 1979, the banks that were supporting the company were unlikely to put more good money after bad. Chrysler needed several billion to survive the 1981-82 recessions and build the line of compact K-cars that revived the company.
Last year, Chrysler repaid the $1.2 billion in guaranteed loans it had taken seven years ahead of schedule, wiping clean that part of the slate. The government also made a profit of about $300 million on the sale of the Chrysler stock it received as part of the deal.
What was Chrylser's survival worth?
Lee A. Iacocca, the Chrysler chairman and supersalesman, says 600,000 jobs were saved. Mondale says these jobs were a crucial benefit from the bailout.
Mondale's rival, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who voted against the bailout in 1979, says those numbers are heavily padded. Chrysler employed 134,000 production workers before the bailout, Hart notes. Even with the bailout, 57,000 of those autoworkers lost their jobs.
Hart argues that if the automaker had gone bankrupt, many of its employes and dealers would have found work building and selling someone else's cars as Chrysler's rivals filled the gap left by its demise. Others have speculated that another car company would have purchased the best of Chrysler's plants.
But it probably wouldn't have worked out that way, says American Motor Corp. chairman W. Paul Tippett. Chrysler's auto plants weren't worth much to anyone in 1980 and 1981 because of the collapse of car sales. "Nobody really needed them at that time," Tippett said recently.
A corporation like Chrysler is an intricate network of managers, employes, suppliers, tradesmen and -- not least of all -- customers. "It is a unit," says Bernard Hanon, chairman of Renault, half-owner of AMC. "If you break it up, it disappears." The breakup of Chrysler would have meant lower car sales and significantly higher unemployment until the people in that network could have been absorbed elsewhere.
The absorption problem in the Detroit area would have been tremendous, particularly among its black and minority autoworkers. According to the Department of Transportation, 35,000 of them would have been put out of work by a shutdown.
Of course more workers than those on Chrysler's own payroll were at risk. Others from ironworkers to car dealers to all the suppliers of parts for Chrysler cars would have lost work. Date Resources Inc. of Lexington, Mass., produced the estimate that 600,000 jobs were vulnerable. There is no way of knowing how many of them would have faced long periods of joblessness, substantial cuts in pay or a costly relocation to another city -- or all three.
Secondly, to use Hanon's term, the bailout saved Chrysler as a unit -- an enormously successful one, thanks to sharper management and a much closer attention to quality, productivity and teamwork by its employes. Had Chrysler failed, the image of U.S. manufacturers as second-rate performers would likely have spread further among consumers. By succeeding as dramatically as he did (Chrysler made a $700 million profit in 1983) Iacocca has done a good deal to revive this country's "can do" reputation, an intangible but probably considerable contribution.
On the other side of the ledger, there was a price paid to save Chrysler, even it the federal government made a profit on the deal. Some of the costs were indirect.
After the 1979 bailout, the U.S. car sales collapsed. In 1981, the Reagan administration pressured the Japanese government into accepting a "voluntary" limitation on auto shipments to this country; the initial level was 1.68 million cars in 1981, and is now 1.85 million (plus another 90,000 station wagons and other specialty vehicles.) This has held Japanese imports to about one-fifth of the U.S. market.
Some economists argue the restriction on Japanese imports did two things to hurt consumers: it caused Japan to increase shipments of its costlier models at the expense of lower-priced subcompacts, and it reduced price competition overall, permitting the U.S. automakers to charge more than they otherwise could have. A preliminary Brookings Institution estimate puts the added consumer cost at $400 per car.
The precise amount that car prices have gone up because of import restrictions is hard to calculate because the recessions of the early 1980s, the import restrictions and, finally, the decline in real gasoline prices have caused so much disruption in auto sales patterns.
Both domestic and imported car prices rose a lot faster than the 9.5 percent increase in all consumer prices during those years. The average transaction for a U.S.-built car (including dealer markup and fees) rose more than 17 percent between 1981 and 1983, using year-to-year comparisions provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The average import price rose nearly 20 percent.
Not all of that sticker price inflation was due to import controls, however. The deep recessions of the 1980-82 period hit hardest at lower- income consumers -- the people who were buying the lower-price foreign subcompacts and stripped-down American subcompacts. Both the Japanese automakers and Detroit figured out that the best way to make money in a recession is to sell expensive cars to upper-income consumers.
But did the Chrysler bailout cause the import restrictions? No. The Carter administration proposed the bailout to save one giant American corporation. The import restrictions were a Reagan administration response to a severe recession that hadn't been foreseen when the bailout was approved in 1979. The "voluntary" quota on Japanese imports relieved political pressure in Congress for stronger action against Japan's automakers. At the same time, by limiting the Japanese share of the U.S. market, the restrictions may have made the Chrysler bailout work, because they enhanced Iacocca's opportunity to sell his new K-cars.
Chrysler argues that the bailout benefited consumers by preserving more competition in the auto industry. In the years immediately following the bailout, Chrysler was able to undersell its American competitors because of the wage and other concessions it received as part of the survival plan. Would auto prices be significantly lower if Chrysler had disappeared and General Motors, Ford and the importers had picked up the pieces? It's hard to see why.
But consumers can fairly ask why they were obliged to pay even a dime more in higher prices for their new cars to bail out Chrysler and its employes, when millions of other workers and thousands of other companies with less clout suffered layoffs and bankruptcies during the recession and got no special help.
Iacocca points out that when his company got its loan guarantee, there were already $409 billion in federally guarantee loans on the books. "Maybe I should say 'only' $409 billion, because that was three years ago," Iacocca said at a House subcommittee hearing in February. Now it is $640 billion, headed to $1 trillion by 1988, Iacocca said, citing the Office of Management and Budget. "Who gets all these loans? Big business, small business, college students, airlines, shipbuilders, New York City... $997 million for the Washington subway." The list goes on and on, he said -- referring to Small Business Administration loans, Agriculture Department and Martitime Administration programs and so on.
"We do have industrial policies. We have them all over the map."
If the Chrysler loan guarantee helped encourage the spread of other loan guarantees -- bailouts -- there would little reason to thank Carter, Congress and Iacocca for it. The Chrysler chairman says that a new policy is needed -- not to create more Chryslers, but to try to avoid them. And that is Mondale's goal, too, his supporters say. "Nobody wants company-by-company bailouts. That's not what Mondale has suggested," says Stuart D. Eizenstat, former president Jimmy Carter's chief domestic adviser and a Mondale supporter.
Mondale would appoint a high- level commission of leaders from labor and management in major industries, add the appropriate government officials, and assign them to devise a plan for making their industries more competitive.
Frank A. Weil, a former assistant secretary of commerce for industry and trade in the Carter administration, has written that "as early as 1977, Chrysler's management sounded the alarm at the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, Labor and the Treasury, as well as the Council of Economic Advisors.... These efforts were insufficient: no one felt responsible or able to respond." By the time Congress and the administration did "respond" it was almost too late, Weil said. To make the bailout effective, it had to be followed by import relief.
Iacocca says that the U.S. auto industry's plight is due not only to management mistakes or auto workers' wages, but to federal policies as well. The fact that the dollar is overvalued compared to the Japanese yen gives Japanese automakers an advantage worth $700 per car, Chrysler calculates. That handicap is largely a consequence of continuing federal budget deficits and high U.S. interest rates. Other federal policies on employe benefits, safety and environmental controls, trade and antitrust policy affect the auto industry in major ways and there is no forum to wrestle with all of them at once, Iacocca says.
Today, Chrysler symbolizes not merely a successful billion dollar bailout, but a different way of dealing with the industrial problems that will pain America for years to come, as basic industries are forced to cut back or change operations radically because of foreign competition.
There is a lot of appeal in the idea of management and labor negotiating new ways to improve production quality, and wage restraint where necessary, with government chipping in retraining assistance for displaced employes and sorting through the maze of federal policies that affect an industry's competitiveness.
But Chrysler's success does not wipe away the doubts many have about such a process. In fact, it highlights some of the real problems with that approach.
To protect the public interest, Congress and the Carter administration tied strings to the Chrysler bailout, requiring the company to disclose its plans and projections to the government's loan guarantee board. The board had to determine that Chrysler's plans made sense before approving the several installments on the $1.2 billion in guaranteed loans.
But some of this confidential information was leaked, and the approval requirement kept Chrysler's perilous finances in the headlines in 1980, damaging consumer confidence, Iacocca notes. "I sometimes wonder who we were helping the most -- the media or the competitors," said Joseph A. Campagna, Chrysler's vice president of marketing.
One of the chief reasons Chrysler paid off its loans early was to get out from under government scrutiny, Iacocca said.
Chrysler and the government may have been arms-length partners, but they were still partners. Government watchdogs were supposed to hold Chrysler to certain financial performance requirements to protect the public interest. In fact, they granted numerous waivers to Chrysler when it couldn't meet targets for it because of the deep recession.
The Chrysler bailout worked. But it also demonstrates how hard it can be to simultaenously protect the interests of the consumers and taxpayers while trying to salvage -- and even help run -- an automobile company.