As Churchill famously said of democracy, the administrationâ€™s new plans for General Motors are a dismal idea, except for all of the alternatives. Under the plan, GM has to come up with a detailed strategy by June 1 that plausibly will allow it to survive and so receive nearly $12 billion more from the taxpayers, or file for bankruptcy. By then, the government will have lent GM $27 billion. Whatâ€™s new in the plan is that the Treasury will swap half of that debt for equity (GM shares). In the end, the government and a healthcare trust managed by the United Auto Workers will hold 89 percent of the auto giant. Unsecured bondholders will own the rest, if they agree to swap their debt for equity too â€” and even as they complain bitterly, theyâ€™ll have little choice, since if they donâ€™t go along, GM goes belly-up and they get nothing.
With the clarity that comes from impending doom, GM is finally taking serious steps to restructure itself â€” something it could have done a decade ago and avoided all this. Toppled last year by Toyota as the worldâ€™s Number One automaker, the former Detroit titan is now headed for much leaner territory. In exchange for the governmentâ€™s billions and the UAW concessions that have kept it afloat for the past six months, GM has already announced plans to close down Pontiac â€” Saturn and Hummer will follow soon â€” shutter nearly 30 percent of its plants and, by the end of 2010, reduce its workforce by one-third and pare its dealership network from 6,200 to 3,600. If all of this works, GM will end up the Number Three automaker operating here and Number Four or Five in the world.
Already weak before the financial crisis and recession hit, GM probably could have stumbled through a normal business downturn without much help. But like a number of other national brands, GM found that it couldnâ€™t survive a protracted financial-market freeze that dried up its credit line and a deep recession that decimated its sales. The risk now is not that GM managers wonâ€™t be able to come up with more reasonable plans, especially with their countless advisors from investment banks, consulting firms and the Presidentâ€™s auto task force. Rather, the risk here is that GM wonâ€™t be able to produce competitive automobiles that will sell and keep the company in business into 2010 â€” and the government canâ€™t do anything about GMâ€™s capacity to turn out sellable cars. I suppose thatâ€™s the good news here: Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Steven Rattner wonâ€™t try to tell GM how to run itself. Instead, once they approve GM new plans, we all become passive investors, much like the big pension funds that hold large stakes in hundreds of other companies.
The government also doesnâ€™t know much about running, for example, either an airline or a retail chain, two other industries with huge market leaders near bankruptcy. So, why hadnâ€™t it offered to lend billions to United Airlines or the GAP, and then swap those loans for majority equity positions? What the easy critics of the plan donâ€™t see is that GM is part of a much larger and deeper global network of suppliers and distributors, so like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns â€” and Citigroup and AIG â€” its sudden failure would have cascading effects. On top of that, thereâ€™s the deep recession â€” and itâ€™s still getting worse, not better â€” which could dangerously aggravate those cascading effects. In short, an abrupt bankruptcy by one of Americaâ€™s largest and most iconic companies during the worst recession in 80 years could drive down the economy another big notch, making all of the current problems that much harder to solve.
So, if it costs the Treasury another $12 billion to try to head that off â€” or another $20 billion down the line â€” it will be worth it if it protects the rest of us from an even more dismal economy. Now, think about it: If the Bush administration had done that with Bear Stearns more than a year ago and then Lehman Brothers, all of these problems would be a lot more manageable.