Uncle Sam spends $3.5 billion buying a subprime lender

By Felix Salmon
July 22, 2010
$17.2 billion bailing out GM's subprime lender, GMAC. It's never going to get repaid in full: at the moment estimates of total losses on that deal are running at about the $6 billion mark.

So the government knows full well how dangerous and costly it can be for GM to own a subprime lender. What's more, the government currently controls GM, holding an equity stake of about 61% of the company.

So what on earth is GM doing spending $3.5 billion on buying a subprime lender? It's not enough to simply bail them out, it seems: the government is now using taxpayer money to buy out AmeriCredit's shareholders at a 24% premium to Wednesday's closing price.

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Quite aside from the costs of rescuing GM itself, the U.S. government spent a whopping $17.2 billion bailing out GM’s subprime lender, GMAC. It’s never going to get repaid in full: at the moment estimates of total losses on that deal are running at about the $6 billion mark.

So the government knows full well how dangerous and costly it can be for GM to own a subprime lender. What’s more, the government currently controls GM, holding an equity stake of about 61% of the company.

So what on earth is GM doing spending $3.5 billion on buying a subprime lender? It’s not enough to simply bail them out, it seems: the government is now using taxpayer money to buy out AmeriCredit’s shareholders at a 24% premium to Wednesday’s closing price.

I do appreciate that GM needs to be able to sell cars to people with bad credit. But there’s no indication that GM is a good owner of subprime lenders — quite the opposite. AmeriCredit is already working with thousands of GM dealers, and the two could easily start rolling out GM-branded products across GM’s dealer network even without an acquisition.

I’m suspicious at the speed with which GM is moving back into the world of financial services: I’m not sure it bodes well for the company, which really should be sticking to building cars, keeping its credit operations outsourced.

If GM wants to build a strategic relationship with AmeriCredit, that’s fine, and anybody who’s bullish on GM would be more than welcome to buy AmeriCredit shares at the same time. But I see no great upside — and lots of danger — in bundling the two. And in any case the last person who should spend $3.5 billion on a subprime lender is anybody at the Treasury.

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