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Obama faces tough decisions on US auto industry

02/15/2009

WASHINGTON

The Obama administration faces difficult choices on the fate of the U.S. auto industry, weighing the cost of pouring billions more into struggling companies against possible bankruptcies that could undermine plans to jump-start the economy.

General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC are racing against a Tuesday deadline to submit plans to the government to show how they can repay billions in government loans and return to viability despite a sharp decline in auto sales.

The terms of the federal loans set "targets" for concessions, largely from debt-holders and the United Auto Workers union, but concession talks have made little progress with just a couple days left before the initial deadline.

Negotiations between GM and the UAW broke off Friday night but were to resume Sunday, still focusing on exchanging the company's cash payments into a union-run retiree health care trust for GM stock, according to a person briefed on the talks who didn't want to be identified because the bargaining is private.

GM and UAW officials declined comment.

GM and Chrysler don't need to have everything nailed down for Tuesday's progress reports, but the companies are expected to detail concessions along with plant closures, the potential elimination of brands and thousands of job cuts.

After Tuesday there will be several weeks of intense negotiations ahead of a March 31 deadline for the final versions of the plans.

Detroit-based GM and Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler are living off a combined $13.4 billion in government loans. If they don't receive concessions by March 31, they face the prospect of having the loans pulled, followed by bankruptcy proceedings.

Any bankruptcy would be particularly painful with some economists predicting the country could lose 2 million to 3 million jobs this year and the unemployment rate, now 7.6 percent, could swell past 9 percent by the spring of 2010.

In network interviews Sunday, White House senior adviser David Axelrod didn't respond directly when asked if the U.S. economy could withstand a GM bankruptcy. Nor did he directly address a question about whether the Obama administration would let GM go into bankruptcy.

"I'm not going to prejudge anything. I think that there is going to have to be a restructuring of those companies. I'm not going to get into the mode of how that happens. We'll wait and see what they have to say on Tuesday," he told "Fox News Sunday."

Executives at the two automakers have said bankruptcy is not an option because consumers would not buy cars from a company that might go out of business.

"How that restructuring comes is something that has to be determined," Axelrod said. "But it's going to be something that's going to require sacrifice not just from the auto workers but also from creditors, from shareholders and the executives who run the company. And everyone's going to have to get together here to build companies that can compete in the future."

Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley labor economist who has studied the automakers, doesn't think the Obama administration would run the risk of bankruptcies given its efforts to create jobs.

"We're clearly on the edge of that abyss right now. Going over it would do irreparable damage not simply to the auto industry but to the manufacturing base in this country," Shaiken said.

Under the GM and Chrysler loan terms, both companies have "targets" to reduce debt and labor costs. One target says the automakers need to convert half of their payments into a health care trust fund for retirees in stock rather than cash, reducing their debt. Another requires the companies to reduce their unsecured debt by two-thirds by persuading investors to swap the debt for equity in the companies.

In 2007 contract talks, the union agreed to take on retiree health care to help the companies remove billions in liabilities from their books. But the contracts only require the company to pay the union 60 percent of the liability, Shaiken said. If half those payments come in risky stock, the trust fund may not have enough money, he said.

According to others briefed on the talks, bargaining has shifted to Ford Motor Co., the healthiest of the Detroit Three and the only one not receiving government loans. Ford is seeking the same concessions as GM and Chrysler so it's not placed at a disadvantage.

Another complication is that Obama has not yet appointed an overseer of the plans — a so-called "auto czar" — and many industry officials have said the lack of an administration point-person has slowed the discussions. Steven Rattner, a private equity investor, and Stephen Girsky, a veteran auto industry analyst, have been mentioned as leading contenders to be part of an Obama auto team.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Thursday that he did not expect the reports Tuesday to provide "very specific information because there's no car czar. I do think there will be an outline of directions."

Axelrod wouldn't say whether the administration would offer the auto industry more bailout money. GM already has borrowed $9.4 billion to stay in business, and it would receive an addition $4 billion if the Treasury Department approves its viability plan. Chrysler wants $3 billion more on top of the $4 billion it has already borrowed.

"We need to see what it is that they come up with this week," he said.

LINK:The Associated Press: Obama faces tough decisions on US auto industry
 

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“car czar”

February 16, 2009

To Fix Detroit, Obama Is Said to Drop Plan for ‘Car Czar’

DETROIT — President Obama has dropped the idea of appointing a single, powerful “car czar” to oversee the revamping of General Motors and Chrysler and will instead keep the politically delicate task in the hands of his most senior economic advisers, a top administration official said Sunday night.

Mr. Obama is designating the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, and the chairman of the National Economic Council, Lawrence H. Summers, to oversee a presidential panel on the auto industry. Mr. Geithner will also supervise the $17.4 billion in loan agreements already in place with G.M. and Chrysler, said the official, who insisted on anonymity.

The official also said that Ron Bloom, a restructuring expert who has advised the labor unions in the troubled steel and airline industries, would be named a senior adviser to Treasury on the auto crisis.

The unexpected shift comes as G.M. and Chrysler race to complete broad restructuring plans they must file with the Treasury by Tuesday. The companies’ plans are required to show progress in cutting long-term costs as a condition for keeping their loans.

The administration official said the president was reserving for himself any decision on the viability of G.M. and Chrysler, both of which came close to bankruptcy before receiving federal aid two months ago.

One of President Obama’s top advisers said Sunday that the administration had not ruled out a government-backed bankruptcy as a means to overhaul the automakers.

“We’re going to need a restructuring of these companies,” the adviser, David Axelrod, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. He added that a turnaround of the companies would “require sacrifice not just from the auto workers but also from creditors, from shareholders and the executives who run the company.”

The automakers had been expecting the appointment of a car czar to break the logjam of negotiations with the United Auto Workers over the finances of a retiree health care trust, and with bondholders about reducing the companies’ debt.

Mr. Bloom is known for bringing his Wall Street experience as an investment banker to an advisory role as the “in-house” banker for the steel workers’ union. With the auto union locking horns with bondholders in the G.M. revamping deliberations, Mr. Bloom appears to bring credibility with both the union and the debtors. Mr. Bloom could not be reached for comment Sunday night.

Another senior administration official said that Mr. Obama had considered appointing a car czar, and among those considered for the job was the private equity executive Steven Rattner. It was not clear why the administration changed course or whether Mr. Rattner would have a role on the task force.

The panel, called the Presidential Task Force on Autos, will draw officials from several agencies including the departments of Treasury, labor, transportation, commerce and energy, according to the administration official.

Many members of the task force have already been working closely with G.M. and Chrysler on the viability plans they are preparing for the government.

G.M. and Chrysler are both expected to request more loans to stay solvent during what is shaping up as another miserable year for auto sales.

Chrysler’s chairman, Robert L. Nardelli, has said his company needs another $3 billion in addition to the $4 billion loan it received in January.

G.M. originally asked for $18 billion in aid in December. G.M. has borrowed $9.4 billion so far and is scheduled to receive another $4 billion, if the Treasury is satisfied with its revamping plan.

G.M. said in a statement that it welcomed the new task force and that it looked forward to sharing its plan “to restore our company to viability and to meet the requirements of its loan agreements.”

Representatives of Chrysler could not be reached for comment on Sunday night.

The administration official who disclosed the change in Mr. Obama’s plans for oversight of the auto industry said the group would review the companies’ submissions for a week or two before responding publicly. Until then, the auto makers are expected to continue talks with the union and other stakeholders.

On Sunday afternoon, G.M. and the U.A.W. resumed discussions in Detroit about reducing the company’s labor costs, a person with direct knowledge of the talks said. This person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private, characterized the talks Sunday evening as “intense” but did not indicate that an agreement was imminent.

The U.A.W. had walked away from the bargaining table late Friday as the two sides clashed over how to cover retiree health care costs.

U.A.W. leaders in December agreed to help the automakers by delaying when the companies are required to make multibillion-dollar payments into a new trust fund designed to pay for retiree health coverage.

The Ford Motor Company is not taking federal aid, and therefore does not need to submit plans for approval. But Ford, which lost $14.6 billion in 2008, the most in its history, is expected to ask the U.A.W. for whatever concessions are granted to G.M. and Chrysler.

Both G.M. and Chrysler are likely to outline deep cuts in jobs, plants and models in their restructuring plans. One G.M. executive said the automaker is proposing a much smaller company with fewer brands and far fewer people.

G.M. and Chrysler recently extended buyout and early retirement offers to nearly all of their 90,600 hourly workers as they try to eliminate factory jobs and replace older workers making about $28 an hour with new hires who can be paid half as much.

G.M. announced plans last week to cut 10,000 white-collar jobs worldwide, including 3,400 in the United States. It said that salaries for those who remain on staff would be cut by as much as 10 percent through at least the end of 2009.

Over all, automakers are expected to sell between 10 million and 11 million vehicles in the United States this year, far below the 16.2 million they sold in 2007. G.M. said last week that the two-year drop is roughly equal to the capacity of 24 assembly plants.

LINK:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/16/business/economy/16auto.html?ref=business
 
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