Monday, November 10, 2008

Auto-Asphyxiation - GM, Ford Gasp for Bailout

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. In addition to the term helicopter economics, we have also coined the term, helicopternomics, to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government and to update the old-fashioned term wheelbarrow economics.

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No industry better symbolizes 20th century American commerce and culture than does autos. It was in the U.S. that mass production of cars were perfected by Henry Ford and the idea that the average person could own their own vehicle first took hold. It was widespread ownership of automobiles that allowed the post-World War II U.S. to become a suburban chain store nation. Now, the three remaining major U.S. auto companies no longer seem to be viable businesses and the implications are not just economic, but social and political as well .

The problems with the auto companies didn't just happen overnight, but first became evident in the 1970s. When oil prices started to soar, the American consumer turned away from the huge gas guzzlers that Detroit manufactured and the Japanese car companies with their fuel-efficient products gained major footholds in the U.S. market. Chrysler eventually needed a $675 million bailout in 1980 to continue operating. Detroit failed to heed the warning however and the lesson it learned from the events of the 1970s was that the government would bail it out if it messed up and it should try harder to get government restrictions and limitations on foreign imports. Auto industry lobbyists also subsequently did everything possible to overturn federal laws that mandated Detroit produce fuel efficient cars. So in the last ten years, this allowed them to saturate the U.S. market with low gas mileage SUV behemoths and pickup trucks. Now another completely predictable surge in fuel prices has taken place and the Japanese along with Korean auto manufacturers are there to pick up the pieces. An industry that has repeatedly lambasted government interference in its operations and used its political power to undo government programs that could have preserved its economic viability, now is begging the government to interfere by bailing it out.

This is not to imply that auto sales aren't hurting all around because of the economy - they are. Year over year industry sales were down 32% last month and while Ford was in line with a 30% drop, GM had a much worse 45% fall. Similar figures can be found for 1930, the first year of the Great Depression by the way (read that sentence again). GM has has been bleeding red ink since the end of 2004 with a total loss of $73 billion. Ford hasn't been much better off, but managed to report a surprise profit in the second quarter of this year. At that time the New York Investing meetup pointed out that this supposed profit was completely bogus, although the financial media trumpeted it with blaring good-news headlines. For a few days Ford's stock surged, but within weeks began to collapse. The low in Monday's trading was a $1.90 and GM had fallen to a new 50 plus year low of $3.02. GM stock dropped almost 25% on the day because it had announced that its 49% owned GMAC credit arm was likely to go under and its spun off part's supplier Delphi might not emerge from bankruptcy.

Bad earnings are not what forces companies into bankruptcy though. Running out of cash is what pushes them over the edge. By this criteria, GM is likely to go under sometime next spring and Ford might last a little longer. A massive government bailout for the entire industry is of course inevitable. The bailout actually started last year with $25 billion in loans in the 2007 energy bill and an additional $25 billion loan attached to a bill for funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars this September. Detroit now wants part of the Wall Street bailout bill money, although the Bush administration is hostile to this suggestion, so Detroit may have to wait until early 2009 to be saved from itself by the federal government.

NEXT: AIG - Bailing Out the Bail Out ... Again

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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