Auto Bailout Plan Will Test Obama's Union Loyalties
President Bush has agreed to lend GM and Chrysler $17.4 billion on the condition these firms complete a plan to accomplish financial viability.
The agreements set goals for automakers: converting two-thirds of their debt into equity; paying company stock to fund one half of the Voluntary Employee Benefits Associations, which fund retiree health care benefits and remove these costs from future liabilities; aligning wages, benefits and work rules with U.S. Nissan, Toyota or Honda operations.
These goals are generally consistent with the conditions I outlined as necessary for the Detroit Three to achieve viability when I testified before the Senate Banking Committee on Nov. 18. For example, laid-off workers could no longer sit in the Jobs Banks collecting 90% of pay and benefits indefinitely and engaging in productive activities like pinochle.
Financial viability requires projecting a positive net present value, taking into account all current and future costs. It does not require a positive cash flow by March 31. Wage and benefit cuts need be accomplished only by Dec. 31, 2009.
Given the depressed auto market, a positive cash flow cannot be accomplished soon, and GM and Chrysler will be asking for more federal loans when they table their plans by March 31. If the auto market stays depressed into 2010, Ford will likely seek assistance. Given the likely duration of the recession, loans of well over $100 billion will be needed. Much of those could prove gifts, with the loans never truly repaid.
Unless the carmakers significantly reduce their debt, jettison retiree legacy liabilities, and align wages, benefits and work rules with those of Japanese transplants, they cannot hope to be consistently profitable.
Yet the agreement permits the automakers to vary from those conditions if they can still demonstrate a net positive present value. Enter the accounting magicians.
UAW contracts are exceedingly complex. GM and UAW leaders have mastered obfuscating the consequences of their pay structure and work rules. Calculations of net present value will hinge on forecasts of future car sales and wages paid by Toyota, Nissan and Honda.
A few quick pen strokes and a lousy business plan can be made a winner, with costs to taxpayers in unpaid loans becoming apparent years later.
Barack Obama owes organized labor a huge debt for his November victory. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger can be expected to try to sell Obama labor agreements that appear to create more concessions than are real and leave the Detroit Three in the red.
Fooling Obama would create loans the Detroit Three never can really repay. The government could force payment at the expense of the next creditors in line — the large U.S. banks — but the federal government is already subsidizing their losses.
One way or the other, ordinary citizens who don't earn nearly the pay and benefits autoworkers receive would be paying taxes to subsidize their rather generous lifestyles, much as taxpayers are financing the bloated bonuses at large New York banks requiring federal dole to stay afloat.
President Bush has punted the auto mess to his successor, and one of three outcomes is possible.
President Obama can require the carmakers and UAW to come up with a contract ordinary mortals can understand, eliminate all the foolish job classifications and work rules, and establish pay rates that make the Detroit Three competitive.
Obama can push the automakers into a prepackaged Chapter 11, perhaps by providing some financing to ensure suppliers are paid and companies can continue to operate, and let a bankruptcy judge impose the essential conditions of the Bush agreement.
He can let the Detroit Three continue their profligate behavior, providing subsidies masquerading as loans.
Obama faces the same kind of tough choice Bush did when he lavished generous subsidies on agriculture at the beginning of his presidency. If Obama caves to union pressures and chooses to subsidize the carmakers, other unionized industries will line up. Market discipline will not apply to the 8% of private work force represented by unions, and damn the majority that really elected him.
Peter Morici is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.