The Obama Auto Plan

It’s taken me all the way until the end of the day to actually digest the day’s big story — the Obama administration’s new auto industry plan. The first thing to say about this is that unlike a lot of other things that have raised the cry of “socialism!” this really sort of is socialism. You have the President of the United States firing the CEO of General Motors, and simultaneously ordering Chrysler to pursue a process of selling itself to Fiat. The administration is wisely trying to avoid an extended period of state-directed management of industrial firms producing consumer goods, but that’s certainly the situation they’re in at the moment and it’s something we ought to try to bring to an end as soon as possible.

My understanding of the Chrysler portion of the deal is basically that if Chrysler and Fiat can’t come to terms within 30 days, then Chrysler is going to enter into a Chapter 7 liquidation process at which point Fiat could buy whatever it wants. Consequently, Fiat is likely to be able to extract favorable terms on whatever deal they reach. General Motors, meanwhile, is in effect being put into a debtor-in-possession bankruptcy. They haven’t technically been put in such a scenario, but the firm’s restructuring plan has been rejected and the panel is offering a 60 period in which to put together a more radical restructuring featuring haircuts from bondholders and labor unions and dealers. This is basically what would happen in a DIP bankruptcy. The thinking is that given current conditions in the economy and the credit markets it wouldn’t be possible to arrange that through the private sector, so a bankrupt GM would need to be liquidated rather than reorganized. The government is stepping in to, instead, facilitate reorganization.

In both cases, these seem like economically reasonable courses of action. It’s important to note, though, that if these plans work it doesn’t seem like they’ll especially achieve what people would ideally like to see. The American auto industry isn’t really going to be “saved.” General Motors is going to shrink radically, and Chrysler’s production facilities will basically become “transplant” factories of an Italian firm. In job terms, the auto industry is going to continue to shrink as a source of employment. In particular, the Chrysler-Fiat merger scenario is consistent with massive job losses in the United States since it’s not obvious how many Americans Chrysler would really want to employ. If GM succeeds in getting out of a lot of its debt obligations, the resulting company isn’t going to be well-positioned to expand when the broader economy recovers since it’ll be hard to borrow on favorable terms. And the “good jobs” nature of blue collar work in the auto industry is going to further erode.

Long story short, this looks like an economically responsible way to avoid a cataclysmic implosion of these firms at an inopportune moment. But this isn’t going to prevent the conditions facing the population of Michigan from further deteriorating. That state more-and-more looks like it’s going to be the 21st century version of the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl. The most important policy question facing us in this regard thus continues to be what can be done to help the people of the Rust Belt that doesn’t just involved indefinitely propping up shrinking firms. The first step is simply to turn around the shrinkage in the larger economy, but the question will remain even if recovery reaches the rest of the country.