Chrysler’s future

By Felix Salmon
April 30, 2009

It’s surely a good thing that Chrysler is filing for bankruptcy: trying to get unanimous consent for a restructuring from dozens of stakeholders — especially small bondholders — was never going to happen on a foreshortened timetable, and it’s going to be much easier for Chrysler to get out of onerous obligations to dealers when a bankrupcy judge orders it. At the same time, the downside of bankruptcy — the fact that the public will be increasingly unsure about the company’s future — is here already; it’s unlikely to get worse, especially so long as Barack Obama makes it very clear that he’s committed to Chrysler’s continued existence as a going concern.

The broad outlines of a deal are already clear: Fiat will take a 35% stake in the company and manage it; the UAW will have a 55% stake; and all the government’s TARP funds will be converted into a 10% stake. Present-day creditors do not get equity but rather get cash; the sticking point is exactly how much cash they will get. And of course present-day shareholders — Cerberus and Daimler — are wiped out, and top management will be replaced.

All of this is necessary but not sufficient for Chrysler to have any hope of a long-term future. One of the more interesting things going forward will be how Chrysler manages to turn itself into a smaller, nimbler, change-oriented company while being majority owned by the UAW — which is nobody’s idea of a change agent. In general, if you need a dose of creative destruction, big unions are not the place to look.

On the other hand, it’s not as though anybody else has been able to manage Chrysler any better, and now, by definition, workers’ interests are aligned with the owners’ interests, just because the workers are the owners. Given how everything up to now has failed, this structure is at the very least worth a try.

As for the smaller creditors who stood in the way of a deal which would have avoided bankruptcy, I have very little time for their plaints. They’re offering nothing which will help Chrysler in the future: they just want to get the maximum return on selling the bonds they picked up for pennies on the dollar. I hope and trust that the bankruptcy judge will give them short shrift.

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