With or Without You

The ouster of General Motors CEO Rick Wagnoner by the Obama administration isn’t the first time in the recent history of bailouts that the government has forced out a CEO. That first happened in September when Bush admnistration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson forced out American International Group CEO Robert Willumstad in favor of Paulson’s friend Edward Liddy.

The lesson from AIG is that replacing a CEO is no panacea. There is no love lost for the poor managment of Rick Wagoner. He is the one who went to the government hat in hand, and when the government is paying the piper, it can call the tune. But replacing him won’t solve GM’s long-term problems of too many brands of autos and too large of a workforce. And it is increasingly clear that the bailout itself is an impediment to effective restructuring.

The prospect of an ever-increasing supply of tax dollars is leading parties with auto industry contracts — unions, bondholders, dealers and others — to play a game of chicken. No one wants to renegotiate a contract when they think the government will come in with more money to cover the losses. And the Obama administration, as with AIG, does not have the power of a bankruptcy court to discharge debt.

Allowing the companies to go into bankruptcy is what should have been done from the start. As with multiple businesses such as airlines that have succesfully emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, debts could be discharged and the companies could be restructured in bankruptcy court.

To say that consumers would be discouraged at buying a car in bankruptcy misses the point. Consumers might be more likely to buy a car from a company restructured by a bankruptcy court, as they buy tickets from once-bankrupt airlines, than to buy a vehicle from zombie companies dependent on the next government bailout. This delay likely hurts “satellite” companies like auto parts makers more than a bankruptcy would.

In the meantime, the government should lift antitrust barriers and leave all options on the table for mergers. The merger with Chrysler and Fiat that the government is encouraging may not be the most effective. GM and Chrysler had long considered merging, but may have been blocked because the combined company would be deemed by antitrust regulators to have too large a share of the “light truck” market, never mind that this market itself is shrinking. Given the precarious state of the companies, they should be given a blanket antitrust waiver to make the combinations they deem best for their viability.

The government should also delay the imposition of the recently announced increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. This flawed mandate that adds costs and reduces choices even in a good economy, could be a lethal blow in times such as these.

Let’s drop both the auto bailouts and the mandates. The American auto industy, which has produced such wonderful innovations for so many decades, is too important to be “saved” by Washington’s central planners.”