A finance view of the political nature of the coming GM bankruptcy

I was on the BBC yesterday talking autos and my commentary was almost entirely political.  So, as we await the likely General Motors bankruptcy, I think it bears discussing how political this process has been and will continue to be.

General Motors is a monster company employing a quarter million people worldwide.  It sells $150 billion in cars – or at least it used to. It is not just a producer of vehicles.  It is also a supplier.  It has been through several joint ventures and has owned a number of foreign manufacturers, Isuzu and Opel being but two. In short, the company is a very big player, financially, economically and politically.  Yet, somehow you get the impression that many in the financial media think we could just turn the lights out and go home.  Witness the video below of CNBC anchors Mark Haines, Erin Burnett and Phil Lebeau and a trio of auto analysts trying to impress upon Haines how important GM is.

The GM bankruptcy is a very big deal and will have wide-ranging implications.  Let me review a few of the issues here starting with the politics.

2010 elections

In the U.S., we have just witnessed an historic election that some are comparing to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.  Indeed, there has been a sea change in the political climate here in Washington since January, with the Democrats and their agenda taking precedence over the Republicans.  But, none of that is going to last if we don’t see a recovery that lasts through the mid-term elections in 2010. And that is already very much on the minds of politicians in Washington.  Here is the calculus.

In 2008, the Democrats benefitted greatly from Barack Obama’s election as President, taking large majorities in both houses of Congress.  Their mandate was to work with the President to fix America’s economic problem.  So, Obama’s and Congressional Democrats’ first priority is to end the recession as quickly as possible.  I guarantee you there would be hell to pay if this is not done well before November 2010 when the next general election is held.

From Obama’s perspective, it is crucial that he fix the banks and fix the auto industry as these were the two economic issues front and centre in the election which he said he could tackle.  With the banking industry stabilised, the Obama legacy rides crucially on how the Auto Bailout proceeds. Under no circumstances is the Obama Administration going to allow General Motors to do to the economy in 2009 what Lehman Brothers did to it in 2008. They are going to fix GM no matter what it takes.  And if this includes heavy-handed tactics, so be it.

So, be very clear that the GM and Chrysler issue is an existential question for this administration.  Handle it well and you get the Roosevelt treatment and ensure a good outcome for your party in 2010.  Screw things up and the depression bears down on America and you’re out of office in due course.  The key policy decision is how to ensure a favourable outcome. And when I say favourable, I mean one that ensures as many jobs as possible while minimizing any wider economic fallout.  Other issues like treating bondholders well, not committing taxpayer monies to the effort, or keeping government out of the auto industry are going to be much less important.

German General Election

And if Obama is concerned about his political fortunes because of an election next year, you can bet that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is concerned given her election is later this year. In Germany, cars have a mythical status.  The Autobahn was begun in the Depression as a way to jumpstart the German economy. The first such road was completed in 1931 between Bonn and Cologne, a road I drove I have driven at least 2 or 300 times (it is a great road for fast driving, by the way, and was opened by Germany’s first Chancellor Adenauer when he was Mayor of Cologne.  I believe the Bonn Porsche dealership is literally a few hundred meters from the entrance).  Shortly thereafter, also during the Depression, the Germans began the car company Volkswagen (literally “the people’s car”) as yet another car-oriented way to jumpstart the economy.

Today there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in Germany tied to the auto sector, which has huge importance in the Rhineland, Germany’s industrial heartland and part of the most populous German state North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as in Lower Saxony, Bavaria, and Baden-Württemberg.  In short, destroying auto jobs is a sure-fire way to lose an election.  The ruling coalition is keenly aware of this and that is why they too will be very involved in the GM bankruptcy as it affects Germany through GM subsidiary Opel.

Below is the video of me discussing this yesterday on the BBC (I know I should put these videos up more often, so I promise to get a hold of the footage or audio whenever I do a media appearance).

And I haven’t even mentioned the politics in Sweden, the U.K., Austria, Canada or Italy where this expected bankruptcy is equally important.

As for the finance side of things I only want to highlight a single issue, credit default swaps.  Back on April 30th, I wrote an article called “CDS contracts and the implosion of several Eastern European economies.”  In it, I argued that the ‘insurance’ of credit default swaps changed creditor behaviour in a way that made bankruptcy more likely.  I also warned that credit default swaps were going to be an issue in the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies (for a German-language take on the same, see Blicklog’s “Warum Gläubiger von GM ein Interesse an der Insolvenz haben“).

Think about this for a second: what if CDS contracts were exchange-traded?  Then, we would know exactly who held what CDS exposure.  So the motives of creditors would be made much more transparent and I believe this would help to prevent bankruptcies. The likes of Whitney Tilson, managing partner of the hedge fund T2 Partners, have been making similar noises of late.  If any financial reforms do indeed result from this financial crisis, my hope is that this be one of them.

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