GM: Chapter 11 or bust

By David Bailey
June 1, 2009

David Bailey- Professor David Bailey works at the Coventry University Business School and has written extensively on globalisation, economic restructuring and industrial policy, with particular reference to the auto industry. The opinions expressed are his own. -

GM declared itself bankrupt on Monday in one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history, in an attempt to seek protection from creditors.

The firm has stacked up over $80 billion of losses in the last four years, also swallowing some $20 billion in cash from the Obama administration. It is likely to need another $30 billion before emerging from Chapter 11 substantially slimmed down and free of debts.

A bankruptcy judge will decide who gets what assets. It’s not clear whether during Chapter 11 the firm will continue to function and assemble cars.

It used to be said that “whatever’s good for GM is good for the U.S. economy”. Whilst GM is no longer the world’s biggest carmaker, by some estimates it still accounts for 1 percent of the U.S. economy. The bankruptcy is not only hugely symbolic of the fate of the ailing U.S. car industry, but is of huge importance for all the workers, suppliers, dealers and creditors caught up in its travails.

Republicans have begun to criticise the U.S. president’s handling of the GM affair, but it is difficult to see what else the U.S. president could have done.

Obama had to give GM time to come up with a credible plan, and I have always thought that the firm would need up to $50 billion of government support to get through the downturn and restructuring.

Under the proposed plan, the U.S. government would get a stake of over 70 percent in GM in return for another $30 billion of state cash, with the United Auto Workers union taking 17.5 percent initially, with the union accepting shares in GM instead of cash owed by the firm for retired employees healthcare cover.

A majority of GM’s bondholders have accepted the offer to swap their $27 billion in debt for an initial stake of 10 percent with the option of buying 15 percent more later. Their agreement to do this should help in speeding GM’s progress through Chapter 11 and avoid expensive legal battles.

Whilst a minority group of bondholders are holding out for a better deal, in reality this restructuring is the only game in town.

Hopefully, the new GM that emerges from Chapter 11 will be leaner, fitter and free of debts. It will include the firm’s best models and R&D and will scrap brands like Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn.

By 2012, the new GM will comprise the Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick brands, plus its GMC truck brand. Of particular importance, its forthcoming electric Chevvy Volt car will be part of the new firm.

“GM-Lite” will cut the number of assembly sites across North America, including Canada, to 33 within three years, from 47 at the end of last year.

Eventually, the goal is to float the new firm on the New York Stock Exchange. It will shed some 20,000 or more workers in the U.S., and has also told over a thousand dealers in the U.S. that they are at risk of losing their franchise. GM plans to lose 2,300 from its 6,000-strong network.

In a deal with the UAW which saves the firm $1 billion a year, rules on breaks, vacation and overtime have been changed, retiree benefits have been cut, and the UAW has agreed not to strike until September 2015 at the earliest.

GM will never be the biggest manufacturer again, but Chapter 11 is anyway about restructuring the firm, erasing the debts, cutting costs and reorienting the firm towards more environmentally friendly cars.

A viable car company may yet emerge from the ashes of the old GM, thanks to an interventionist U.S. government which is investing heavily in new green technologies.

The situation here in the UK is rather different. An efficient and world class car industry is struggling given the impact of recession and credit crunch, and the British government has largely been a spectator as GM Europe has been sold off.

That in turn could have a very significant impact on jobs at Vauxhall here in the UK.

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