GM looks to use US and Canadian tax money to bailout Opel

An article in the National Post suggests General Motors may look to divert some of its bailout money to Europe in the wake of a chill in German government support for subsidies. Talk of using taxpayer money to benefit workers in other countries is sure to raise ire, especially in the United States where the unemployment rate has hit double-digit levels.

When General Motors was forced into receivership this past Spring, it received tens of billions in bailout money from the U.S. and Canadian governments in order to protect jobs in the auto sector.

For his part, Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister said the aid was regrettable but necessary.

The Vancouver Sun reported at the time:

Canada had no choice but to support the restructuring of auto giant General Motors Corp. with about $10 billion in taxpayer aid or face devastating economic consequences, Canadian government and union leaders said Monday.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs would have been lost and communities across southern Ontario would otherwise have been devastated, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said at a news conference Monday, hours after the 100-year-old company sought protection from bankruptcy in the U.S.

"We could either participate in reshaping these companies for the future or stand idly by as they restructured out of Canada," Harper said in Toronto.

"The decision announced today is regrettable but necessary."

The federal and Ontario governments’ contribution to the restructuring is set at $9.5 billion US, according to a joint statement Monday from the prime minister and U.S. President Barack Obama.

For that, Canadian taxpayers will hold a 12-per-cent equity stake and will also appoint one independent director to the company’s board.

The U.S. government sunk even more into General Motors – $50 billion. All of this money and the ‘cash for clunkers’ program have allowed General Motors to return to life. However, many issues remain, the most consequential of which is GM Europe. 

Since late May, it has appeared that a consortium headed by Magna International was set to take over GM Europe on the condition of 4.5 billion in state aid from Germany. As early as August, stories surfaced in which GM was considering raising capital in order to keep Opel. GM never wanted to sell Opel and Vauxhall, but it was forced to do so by circumstance.

However, when GM abruptly backed out of the Magna deal early in November it enraged the German government, who are now not likely to offer any aid. At the time I said:

Will Obama now come up with the funds?  If this minister gets his way, there don’t seem to be a whole lot of solutions here.

Well, here is one solution via the National Post (note the part I have highlighted in bold):

General Motors Co. may use some of the money it won from Canadian and U.S. taxpayers in the spring to fix its Opel unit in Europe in the months ahead as it works out a new financing plan for the money-losing business.

Detroit-based GM plans to fund Opel’s turnaround using a mix of sources after deciding to keep the business itself instead of selling a majority stake to Magna International Inc. and Russia’s Sberbank. That could include tapping funds pledged by the federal and Ontario governments, said Chris Preuss, GM’s vice-president of global communications.

"We’re going to be needing to participate directly in the financing" of Opel, Mr. Preuss said in an interview yesterday. "The taxpayers of both Canada and the U.S. have a stake in this. But what was agreed upon was that we have to be able to run a global business."

Translation: GM has every right to use its bailout money as it sees fit.

GM continues to misjudge the political situation. They handled the decision to back out of the deal with Magna very poorly. We are now likely to see increasing signs of economic nationalism at play.

But, just as the backing out created huge waves in Germany, this latest salvo from GM is likely to enrage Canadians and Americans as they see their tax dollars at work to protect the jobs of Europeans. GM may think using Canadian and American bailout funds for GM Europe is a good ‘technical’ solution. But, it is a very poor choice politically and they will pay the price.

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