America Without its Automakers

Gary Burtless and Daniel J. Ikenson debate bailing out the Big Three. Today’s question: What’s wrong with letting U.S. automakers fail?

Point: Gary Burtless

Two of the Big Three U.S. automakers face grave and immediate peril. They are burning through their cash reserves so fast that they may be forced to seek protection under the bankruptcy laws within the next couple of months. Ford, which is in a stronger financial position than Chrysler or General Motors, may not survive much longer than its more imperiled competitors.

If any of the automakers enters bankruptcy, it is far from certain it will emerge as an intact company or as recognizable part of a different company. Assets of the company may be liquidated, and nearly all employees of the firm may be let go. The failure of any one of the Big Three would also precipitate the bankruptcy of firms that supply parts and services to the auto industry. All together, these firms employ hundreds of thousands of workers, many of whom will lose their jobs.

Two developments have pushed U.S. automakers into their current fix. First, the surge in gas prices made it hard for them to sell many of their most profitable cars and trucks. For years after gas prices fell in the mid-1980s, profits of the Big Three depended on healthy sales of gas-guzzling vehicles, including pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. The higher gas prices of the last few years made these vehicles much less attractive to consumers. Both auto sales and profits went into the tank.

Second, the U.S. credit crisis has made it harder for the Big Three to arrange car loans for their customers and to obtain credit to fund their own operations. In addition, the financial meltdown has reduced the value of the assets that back promised pensions and retiree health benefits. The companies must now find the resources to make up for the losses in their pension fund reserves.

The credit crisis would also make it difficult or impossible for a bankrupt GM and/or Chrysler to obtain private loans to maintain their operations after they enter bankruptcy. For this reason, if for no other, the companies may need emergency federal credit merely to unwind their operations in an orderly way if bankruptcy should occur.

I fear that bankruptcy would threaten the long-term survivability of an automaker, even if the company could obtain credit after entering bankruptcy. Bankruptcy works well in many cases. Reorganization of a firm under the protection of the bankruptcy laws often produces a more efficient, healthier company, one that can flourish after it has renegotiated its pre-bankruptcy debts.

For the Big Three, however, bankruptcy would be much less helpful.

Car buyers are not purchasing a product they expect to consume immediately or within the next couple of months. They expect their cars will last half a decade or more. Nearly all of them hope the car’s warranty will be honored, its parts will continue to be available, and plenty of mechanics will be around to take care of the vehicle. An auto company’s impending or actual bankruptcy would severely shrink demand for its products, and the effect would not be temporary. What is the value of an auto company when its customers think the firm might disappear soon?

Bankruptcy poses a smaller challenge when the product or service sold by a company does not involve a long-term relationship after the sale. If Campbell’s Soup were to disappear tomorrow, the unused cans of soup in my kitchen would remain as valuable to me as they were when I bought them. The situation of an automaker is quite different. If Chrysler were to disappear next year, the value of my new Dodge Caravan would plummet. My fear about a Chrysler bankruptcy is that many consumers would respond by marking down the probability that a new Chrysler can be dependably maintained or profitably resold. This in turn would reduce the prices consumers are willing to pay for Chrysler vehicles. Consumers’ pessimistic expectations would make the ultimate liquidation of Chrysler more certain.

Bankruptcy may needlessly kill a U.S. automaker that could survive and thrive with a restructuring loan from Washington. If one or more of the Big Three should disappear, the country would also lose hundreds of thousands of jobs, both in the auto companies and in firms that produce parts for U.S.-made cars. Firms would ultimately spring up or expand to fill the hole in the car market left by the disappearance of a major automaker. But there is no guarantee the cars would be produced in the United States or with the deep pool of skilled manpower that has been developed here.

The truth is, no one knows what would be lost by allowing one of the Big Three to fail. In the short run, hundreds of thousands of jobs are likely to be lost. The confidence of U.S. consumers and investors, already badly shaken, is likely to weaken further. Fervent believers in free markets believe the country will eventually obtain a long-term benefit from the failure of one or all of the Big Three. Better cars would be produced more efficiently and more cheaply by a new competitor.

It’s a nice story. I wish I could believe it. I think we can obtain the same long-term benefit by extending federal assistance — with tough conditions — to the existing industry. The costs and disruptions along the way to a healthier auto industry are likely to be much smaller if the Big Three are helped now rather than allowed to fail early next year.

Visit the Los Angeles Times for the Counterpoint to Gary Burtless’s statement »