The Great Debate UK
from The Great Debate:
By Paul Ingrassia
The opinions expressed are his own.
History repeated itself this week, more or less. Back in 1983 Chrysler, recovering from virtual bankruptcy three years earlier, paid off $1.2 billion in government-guaranteed loans seven years before they were due. On Tuesday Chrysler, recovering from actual bankruptcy in 2009, repaid $7.6 billion in loans made directly by the U.S. government six years before the due date. Chrysler refinanced its debt with private money.
Who would have thought two years ago that Chrysler would survive longer than, say, Charlie Sheen on the airwaves or Osama bin Laden on the lam? American and Canadian taxpayers might not ever recover their full investment in Chrysler because the value of the stock that they bought in the company, and still own, remains uncertain. But the bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors helped prevent the Great Recession from becoming Great Depression II, and stand as President Barack Obama's only outright domestic-policy success to date.
The auto bailout also could serve as a template for addressing the budget deficit and entitlement reform, the current pressing issues in Washington. In rescuing Chrysler and GM, the Obama administration spread pain among workers, dealers, managers, shareholders, bondholders and the taxpayers. It was shared sacrifice, not entirely voluntary, but it worked.
The question for Chrysler now is whether history will continue to repeat itself. Months after the 1983 loan repayment, the company launched its revolutionary new minivan, prompting Car and Driver magazine to stray from its mission of reviewing cars and recommend buying the company's stock. That turned out to be better investment advice than most people got from their brokers.
Political and economic logic are set to collide in the byzantine decision-making over the future of German carmaker Opel, the main European arm of fallen U.S. auto giant General Motors.
If politics prevail, as seems likely, the cost to German taxpayers will be higher and the chances of commercial success lower.
The aim of the Berlin government and four federal states, which are sustaining Opel with bridging finance, is to save as many German jobs and production sites as possible. That makes political sense ahead of September's general election. But the business logic is that only a greatly slimmed-down Opel can survive in an industry with chronic overcapacity.
In theory, it is up to GM's board to choose among the three offers it expected to receive on Monday from Canadian-Austrian car parts maker Magna <MGa.TO>, Belgian financial investor RHJ <RJHI.BR>, and, less plausibly, Chinese state-owned auto maker BAIC. But there are several other powerful players with a say. They include the trustees responsible for the company since GM entered U.S. bankruptcy in June, the German federal and state governments, Opel's works council and, last but not least, the European Commission, which must approve the restructuring plan as a condition for authorising the state aid.