Opinion

The Great Debate

from Breakingviews:

Does Italian capitalism prove that Darwin was right?

By Rob Cox

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A procession of Italian industrialists and financiers slipped through the alleyways behind La Scala opera house two weeks ago to discuss the legacy of the man whose name adorns the piazza outside the building where they met: Enrico Cuccia. The group, ranging from a former Treasury minister to an iconoclastic fashion mogul, shared stories of the founder of Mediobanca, who’d passed away 14 years to the day. Yet for all the nostalgia that afternoon, absent was any obvious desire to turn back the clock to the days when Mediobanca was the unchallenged puppet-master of Italian business.

That’s surprising given the parlous state of corporate Italy. The uno-due punch of the financial and sovereign debt calamities has thrust the establishment into a profound crisis, one even more sweeping than the Tangentopoli corruption scandal that two decades ago sent dozens of Italy’s top businessmen and politicians into Milan’s San Vittore prison. The uniquely Italian form of capitalism conceived by Cuccia after World War Two is at last being consigned to history.

Though the revolution reshaping the nation’s economy is painful and prolonged, those with the most at stake know that Italy needs dramatic change. Deprived of the protections of the past – whether from the cash-strapped government in Rome or Mediobanca in Milan – Italian companies are at last being forced to play by the rules of global finance. Some 95 percent of the institutional investors who account for the bulk of trading on the Italian Stock Exchange are foreign. The survivors of this Darwinian selection will be the better for it.

Unlike the cyclical spikes in bankruptcy filings that typically accompany wrenching economic change in the United States, the evidence of Italy’s transformation is subtler, if wider-reaching. As companies pass the hat to investors beyond the Alps, they must transform their governance in ways that would have Cuccia turning in his grave on the banks of Lago Maggiore (assuming his body, stolen shortly after its 2000 burial, was ever in fact returned to its resting place).

Halting the Corvair made America safer

This is a response to an excerpt from Paul Ingrassia’s Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, published this month by Simon & Schuster.

The causal stretch by Paul Ingrassia over three decades and millions of intervening human events leads him to conclude that “decades after its demise, in the election of 2000, the Corvair’s legacy improbably helped to put George W. Bush in the White House.”

Egads! – as the British say. His otherworldly trek through American history reminds me of Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect,” in which the trail of a tornado is traced all the way back to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings thousands of miles distant. It is one thing to lament the deadly, dancing design of the Corvair until the 1965 model, when the stabilizing, dual-link suspension system was finally installed; it is quite another to burden this automotive offspring of GM’s Ed Cole with the lawless, corporatist, war-starting, anti-democratic Bush regime selected by five Supreme Court justices-turned-Republican politicians in their 5-4 dictate of Bush v. Gore.

How the Corvair’s rise and fall changed America forever

This is an excerpt from Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, published this month by Simon & Schuster.

However it unfolds, this year’s U.S. presidential election is unlikely to be as close as the one America experienced in 2000. That election was decided, after months of contention and suspense, by disputed ballots and a razor-thin result in Florida.

The historic events, however, were set in motion 40 years earlier by a badly flawed automobile, the Chevrolet Corvair. In the mid-1960s the Corvair made Ralph Nader famous. It also made lawyers ubiquitous, thereby making lawsuits one of the great growth industries of the late 20th Century. And decades after its demise, in the election of 2000, the Corvair’s legacy improbably helped to put George W. Bush in the White House. The car’s story is one of genius, hubris, irony and tragedy, not to mention unforeseen long-term effects on American life and thought.

Fiat’s over-ambitious expansion strategy

paul-taylor
– Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Could Italy’s cash-strapped Fiat, Europe’s sixth auto maker, build a workable alliance with Chrysler and Opel to become be a profitable global player? Or would it be a marriage of losers, doomed to fail?

Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has made clear that his interest in Opel, the European arm of ailing General Motors, is more than just a well-timed tactic to get better terms in the alliance he is negotiating with troubled U.S. number three Chrysler. Chrysler faces likely bankruptcy if a deal is not clinched by April 30.

One rule for banks, another for autos

jimsaftcolumn6– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

There is one law, it appears, for failing U.S. automakers but sadly quite another for similarly failing banks.

The Obama administration has decided to play hardball with auto firms; rejecting recovery plans from General Motors and Chrysler LLC (GM.N) and warning they could be thrown into bankruptcy. Chrysler, which is controlled by Cerberus Capital Management CBS.UL, has 30 days to complete an alliance with Italy’s Fiat SpA (FIA.MI) or face losing its government funding. GM chief executive Rick Wagoner is out at government request, as will be most of his board of directors in coming months.

Transfusions don’t stop the bleeding

lou-lataif

– Louis E. Lataif is dean of the Boston University School of Management and a former Ford executive. The views expressed are his own. —

The federal government now wants to shore up ailing auto suppliers with a $5 billion bailout, despite a rising chorus of criticism against more government bailouts. The public is beginning to see bailouts as “transfusions,” rather than a closing of the wound, and is losing patience with them. The “wound” is falling housing values and toxic mortgage-backed securities which have paralyzed financial markets – not the auto industry.

The hastily approved $787 billion “stimulus package,” including aggressive spending programs unrelated to declining home values or the constricted capital markets, is tantamount to administering repeated, expensive blood transfusions rather than stopping the bleeding. Of course, if the blood flow at the wound eventually coagulates (one day the economy will rebound) then the transfusions can be claimed to have worked. But the delayed cure would have come at a crippling cost to the next generations of taxpayers.

Revival of U.S. automaking awaits if UAW will follow Toyota

morici– Peter Morici is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. The views expressed are his own. –

General Motors and Chrysler are on the anvil of history. United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger holds the hammer and will determine whether they emerge more competitive or shattered in pieces and sold to foreign investors.

In December, George W. Bush granted $17.4 billion in temporary loans on the condition those firms convert two-thirds of their debt into equity. Another condition was to persuade the UAW to accept stock for one half of what these companies owe to fund retiree health care and align wages, benefits and work rules with those of the Japanese automakers operating in the United States.

Bailout for automakers?

automakers

As Congress debates legislation to help struggling automakers, many Americans say they are uneasy with the plan, arguing that while it may save jobs, it would reward companies for pursuing bad business practices. Some even question whether automakers will be viable, even with support.

“They need to restructure. If they get bailed out they are not going to do it,” said Eric Smith, a paint contractor interviewed in Chamblee, Georgia, on the outskirts of Atlanta.

U.S. automakers say federal aid is vital to their survival, and there could be devastating ramifications for the broader economy if the sector is not stabilized.

  •