Despite government and media assistance, GM and Chrysler can only pretend to be performing well, while Ford and Toyota really are.
I have added the subtitles within the column.
On April 21, Government/General Motors Chairman Ed Whitacre went to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to crow about how well the company is supposedly doing. In “The GM Bailout: Paid in Full,” he told readers the following:
We’re paying back—in full, with interest, years ahead of schedule—loans made to help fund the new GM. Our ability to pay back these loans less than a year after emerging from bankruptcy is a sign that our plan for building a new GM is working.
Whitacre then took to the airwaves to announce the payoff as a done deal, saying we “have repaid” the loans.
There are two “little” problems with Whitacre’s presentation. First and foremost, the “Bailout Paid in Full” headline in the Journal doesn’t pass the truth test no matter how far you try to stretch it. As Forbes Magazine’s Jerry Flint reminded readers:
That still leaves $43 billion. GM can say they paid us back because of the $50 billion in total support, only $7 billion was counted as a loan and the rest was traded for equity in the company that emerged from bankruptcy. But that is really an accounting trick so that GM doesn’t have to pay interest on that money.
That’s a great point. The government poured tens of billions into GM in return for a 61% ownership stake. Unless and until GM goes public and the government cashes out its shares for at least the $43 billion cited plus at least 5% for each year of delay to account for the time value of money, taxpayers will be getting the short end of the stick.
What’s more, the funds for GM’s loan “repayment” did not come from cash generated by operations. In fact, the company’s latest available financial information indicates that from September 30 (Page 2 at link) to December 31 (Page 123 at link) it burned through $2.4 billion in cash and equivalents, while its working capital (current assets minus current liabilities) fell by $2.75 billion. TARP Inspector General Neil Barofsky has asserted, as paraphrased by Fox News, that GM “only repaid the bailout money by dipping into a separate pot of bailout money.” Good luck finding that critical piece of information anywhere else in the establishment press.
The situation isn’t any better at GM’s fellow bailout recipient Chrysler, nor is the press coverage.
Chrysler lost $3.8 billion during the 205 days after it emerged from bankruptcy last year. It lost another $197 million in the first quarter of 2010. Here was the Associated Press’s headline about those contemporaneous announcements: “Chrysler Posts $197M Loss But Cash Balance Grows.”
One analyst is justifiably unimpressed: “Positive cash flow is being driven by dealer restocking and stretching payables.” The available information bears him out. Chrysler’s December 31 balance sheet showed negative working capital of over $6.5 billion, and a stunning in context $5.6 billion in trade liabilities. The company’s first quarter 2010 financial release included no formal financial statements, but given that its sales during the period trailed last year’s disastrous first quarter by over 5%, it’s hard to see how it generated $1.5 billion in cash without even more interest-free borrowing from suppliers and vendors.
Situation and Outlook
The two bailed-out companies had better hope that industrywide sales ramp up sharply, and soon. That’s because, despite the press’s attempts to minimize the impact, their competitors are eating their lunch in the U.S. market. A smaller piece of a fast-growing pie may be GM’s and especially Chrysler’s only hope.
GM’s March sales were barely ahead of Ford’s and Toyota’s, the latter in spite (maybe because?) of what has from all appearances been an orchestrated media-government campaign to discredit the company’s safety record. Chrysler’s puny first-quarter market share of 9.2% trailed Honda, and was barely ahead of Nissan.
Press and Government Water-Carriers
The press continues to carry GM’s and Chrysler’s water, even when reporting poll results. Last week the Associated Press, after sitting on the information for 40 days, excitedly told readers that “Buy American” is back in the car business. Upon closer examination (i.e., looking at the actual poll data), I learned that Toyota’s loss of 10% in best-quality mind share during the past four years was essentially offset by a 9% gain at Ford. GM’s best-quality mind share dropped by 3%, while Chrysler’s stayed the same. So the only so-called “Buy American” beneficiary has been Ford. Since the early March AP poll seems to have been timed to hit Toyota when it was most vulnerable, it’s reasonable to expect that the Japanese company’s best-quality perception will come back a bit — and when it does, it will likely hit GM and Chrysler much harder than Ford.
The government’s efforts at propping up its two weak wards even extend to its fuel-economy benchmarks, also known as greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards. GM and Chrysler, with their heavier mixes of light trucks, have been given lower miles-per-gallon and GHG targets to hit in 2016 than their competitors. If saving the environment is so important, why do they get a break?
The GHG standards also have loopholes that would appear at least initially to benefit GM and Chrysler. Of particular interest is the so-called “super credit,” whereby a manufacturer’s sales of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles (e.g., the Chevy Volt and a portion of whatever teeny-tiny cars Chrysler part-owner Fiat will try to foist on the public) might be counted multiple times in determining fleet-wide miles per gallon and GHG emissions. Further, a number of lawmakers believe that the two companies’ competitors may have been browbeaten last year into accepting stricter standards while GM and Chrysler were going through their bankruptcy proceedings. Tellingly, the Obama administration is refusing to release documents relating to those negotiations.
What is not yet known is the real wild card in the deck: How many more outraged Americans will refuse to buy GM and Chrysler vehicles because of the health care monstrosity foisted on the nation in March by the same government that controls them? We’ll begin learning the answer to that question when April’s figures come out.