Opinion

The Great Debate

from Stories I’d like to see:

Sealing deadly court files, and Obama and his Cabinet

1. Sealing deadly court files:

In the wake of continuing disclosures about General Motors’ failure to acknowledge critical safety issues related to faulty ignition switches, there’s a looming issue that has not been addressed: How litigation settlements negotiated by private parties can result in court-sanctioned cover-ups that endanger the public.

We now know that there were several cases in which the families of people who died in crashes after ignition switches failed quietly received cash settlements from GM.

In return for the cash, the plaintiffs not only promised to withhold the settlement details but also agreed with GM that the court files would be sealed. In some cases, those sealed records included documents and transcripts of pre-trial deposition testimony that contained evidence gathered about the dangers of the faulty switches.

As this editorial in USA Today points out, “Outrageous as it sounds, such secrecy is routine. Powerful companies and institutions regularly suppress information about public risks, ranging from incompetent doctors to abusive priests to defective products.”

One reason the secrecy is “routine” is that both parties involved benefit. The plaintiff -- and the plaintiffs’ lawyers -- get a quick cash payout. The defendant gets the case killed without the bad publicity and the wave of suits that could come from a public trial, let alone an adverse jury verdict.

How GM can recover

General Motors chief executive officer Mary Barra on Tuesday and Wednesday will appear before Congress to explain why GM took more than a decade to issue a recall on a faulty ignition switch, which led to at least 13 deaths. The hearings will be a proving ground for Barra, who became CEO in December 2013, as well as for GM’s new chairman, Theodore “Tim” Solso, and the entire GM board.

Congress will question why Barra’s most recent predecessors didn’t catch the defective switch. A likely explanation is that the board and senior management were so focused on digging GM out of bankruptcy that they weren’t paying attention to what else may have been going amiss.

Of course, that excuse is insufficient, since the company needs to do both things simultaneously: avoid bankruptcy, while building safe cars. Barra, Solso and the board must convince Congress, the markets and consumers that they have identified why the faulty ignition switch went undiscovered for so long, and that they can be trusted to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.

from James Saft:

Learning from Ken Feinberg

Sometimes it's what doesn't happen that is most illuminating.

When Pay Czar Kenneth Feinberg first slashed executive compensation at U.S. firms that benefited most from a government bailout the cry was that this would hurt these weakened firms when they could least afford it, as the best and brightest would leave for better money elsewhere, where the free market still ruled.

Well, the door didn't hit them on their way out, but mostly because they stayed rooted to their desk chairs.
Feinberg evaluated the compensation of 104 top executives at affected companies in 2009, reducing pay for most to levels far below financial industry norms and their own former earnings.

Yet here we are in 2010 and about 85 percent are still working for the same firms, still toiling for the kinds of wages that may well make them wish they'd gone into the law rather than finance. Remember all those articles in glossy magazines about how impossible it is to make it in New York City on $500,000 a year?

from Commentaries:

GM blog lifts hood on power struggle over Opel

cfcd208495d565ef66e7dff9f98764da.jpgIt's not often you get to lift the hood and watch a power struggle going on in the engine room of General Motors. But the vice-president of GM Europe, John Smith, has just provided tantilising details of the arguments over the rival bids for Opel/Vauxhall, the main European arm of the fallen U.S. auto giant. Smith is the chief negotiator on the sale of Opel.

In a blog apparently intended to reassure Opel staff, but accessible to the public, he insisted GM had not specified a preferred bidder. But he made clear his own preference for the bid from Belgian financial investor RHJ International, which is loosely related to U.S. private equity fund Ripplewood, over the offer by Canadian-Austrian car parts maker Magna and its Kremlin-backed Russian partner Sberbank.

Smith's post is entitled "Clearing the Air" and was ostensibly written to clarify GM's intentions and dispel erroneous reports ascribed to interested parties. But his account shows just how poisonous the atmosphere appears to be between GM and Magna, and GM and the German government, which backs Magna's bid. It also suggests that the air is not too clear within GM's top management either.

Bet on small firms to lead China global foray

Wei Gu–Wei Gu is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own–

Chairman Mao used to say the truth is always kept by the minority.

A little-known private Chinese machinery company’s bid for a GM marque has been sneered at by even the patriotic Chinese media, but the deal could succeed where mightier plays like Chinalco’s for Rio Tinto have failed.

True that private sector firms face an uphill battle in China against more dominant state-backed firms, but it seems like double standards when Western observers, who extol the virtues of the private sector taking the driver’s seat, praise Chinalco’s deal but dismiss Tengzhong’s bid for Hummer.

Chinese media’s disapproval of Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery’s move has tempered concerns about technology and job transfers to China, as well as questions whether China’s military was behind the bid.

The uncharted waters of government ownership

lou-lataif– Louis E. Lataif, a former president of Ford Motors of Europe, is dean of the Boston University School of Management. The views expressed are his own. —

Government ownership of General Motors (60% U.S. and 12% Canada) will be fraught with difficulties.

Given the large taxpayer stake in the company, it will be impossible for elected officials to stay out of the fray. Congress inevitably will interject itself in business decisions affecting employment, the kind of vehicles the company builds, or the company’s position on nationalizing health care – just as it is now asserting itself on the question of dealership closures.

Don’t junk the U.S. auto industry

eugene-ludwigMr. Ludwig, a former U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, is founder and CEO of  consulting firm Promontory Financial Group. Any opinions are his own; GMAC Financial Services is one of Promontory’s clients.

The economic upheaval wreaking havoc on the global financial system is threatening to claim another victim: the domestic automobile industry and its financing arms.

General Motors Corp. could run out of cash by January without help. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC also need fast government intervention to stay solvent. Automakers and the UAW are making their case to Congress this week for emergency help. But even the supporters of a $25 billion aid package for the auto industry are dubious about whether they have the votes to pass it.

This raises the question, why not just let them go bankrupt?  The domestic auto industry is everyone’s favorite whipping boy, and its problems have been growing for decades. Some are of its own making; many are circumstantial. But we cannot blithely accept its failure as somehow inevitable or deserved.

from Tales from the Trail:

Shocker: Fat cat CEOs fly on private jets!

Congress is taking a hard look at Detroit's autos these days. But what about Detroit's jets?

When the chief executives of Ford and General Motors flew in to Washington yesterday to ask Congress for a $25 billion lifeline, they didn't fly coach.

General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner arrived on his company's cushy Gulfstream IV, ABC News reported. Ford CEO Alan Mulally flew in on a private company jet as well.

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