By David Ruggles
I've been waiting for this book since meeting Steve Rattner at a Federal Reserve conference in Detroit in May 2010. The subject of the conference was "After the Perfect Storm, Competitive Forces Shaping the Auto Industry. " Rattner gave a presentation that was largely a promotion for the book he was still working on, offering up fascinating anecdotes only an inside would be aware of, along with some juicy gossip. He also answered some questions from the attendees, which included numerous auto industry veterans, members of the press, and ex GM CEO Robert Stempel. The book is finally available and is MUST reading for anyone interested in the previously unknown details on how the auto industry bailout actually took place. I approached the book with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism due to my personal feelings about certain imperfections in the auto industry bailout, in particular the dealer terminations. I came away from the reading with a new found respect not only for the width and depth of the challenges faced by the Obama Administration's automotive task force, known as Team Auto, but a real appreciation for what they did for the country, in most cases at great personal sacrifice. In Rattner’s case, his personal attorney bill for dealing with the rigors of the vetting process cost him $400,000. The book did nothing toward mitigating my anger over the dealer terminations.
It also reinforced the importance to the nation of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), an idea proposed by Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and passed by Congress after the Lehman Brothers collapse in the fall of 2008, without which it is unlikely that the auto industry bailout would have been possible.
Some unlikely heroes came to light, including President George W. Bush, Paulson, and even Vice President Dick Cheney. During the last days of the Bush Administration there was a meeting of Republican Senators who were holding up a bill in Congress proposed by the Bush Administration to bail out the U.S. auto industry, a bill which ultimately failed and forced the Bush Administration to use TARP funds to bridge the two ailing automakers over to the Obama administration. Cheney reportedly broke from his usual "laissez faire" “free market” economics stance in an unsuccessful but impassioned plea for a Congressional bailout saying, "Don't let this happen on our watch unless you want to be known as the party of Herbert Hoover forever."
George W. Bush, before taking the bold step of going against Republican Party ideologues in bridging GM and Chrysler to the new administration with TARP funds, said, “Frankly, there’s one other consideration, and that is, I feel an obligation to my successor. I feel it is good policy not to dump him a major catastrophe on his first day in office.”
Hank Paulson testifying before Congress, “Had the banks not returned or repaid their TARP money early out of fear of government involvement in their compensation practices, instead of loaning the money out to support the economy, it is probable the money to bailout GM and Chrysler wouldn’t have been available.” Paulson also made the point to the Bush Administration that, “There is no private debtor in possession financing available for either GM or Chrysler to go into Chapter 11 on their own.
The book is a chronicle of deadlines, heated and impassioned debate, personalities, “brinkmanship,” and harsh negotiations. There was serious debate among the Obama administration about just letting Chrysler go, as in the long run it was thought it was a lost cause and that letting it liquidate would help GM and Ford. At this point, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner weighed in on the “fickle nature of public opinion. Right up until Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, public opinion favored letting the firm go down. In the ensuing chaos, the consensus had shifted overnight, and the government was believed to have made a terrible mistake by letting them collapse.”
It also became evident that letting Chrysler go would send a ripple throughout the supplier community causing a “run on the trade by suppliers refusing to supply parts if not paid in advance.
Called out in the book as Incompetents, Light Weights, or Obstructionists are such well known figures as: Sheila Bair, FDIC Chairman, Ray Young – GM CFO, Rick Wagner, ex GM CEO, Fritz Henderson, ex GM CEO, and a host of GM board members.
There are those called out for praise including Bob Corker, Republican Senator from Tennessee, Mark Zandi, Chief Economist for Moody’s Economy.com, and Ron Gettelfinger, Head of the United Auto Workers union.
Retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch was consulted frequently.
“Characters” include “Jimmie” Lee and Jamie Diman, of JP Morgan, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat, and, of course, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff.
There are many unsung heroes who labored in near obscurity. Without the talent and effort of participants too numerous to list here, the bailout wouldn’t have happened. Of particular significance are Harry Wilson, Team Auto’s corporate restructuring specialist, Matt Feldman, Team Auto’s resident genius of bankruptcy law and driver of the Section 363 strategy that allowed for the speedy trips through bankruptcy court, and Brian Deese, Team Auto’s White House liaison. It was Harry Wilson who first proposed that taxpayers take an equity stake on GM to a large degree, and Chrysler to a lesser degree, to minimize the problem of sending them out into the marketplace with a huge load of debt, and the debt service that goes with it. This was probably the biggest decision, one fraught with “moral hazard,” that had to be made by the President.
The two men “driving the bus” were Larry Summers, head of the White House Counsel of Economic advisers, and Tim Geithner, Treasury Secretary, overseen by President Obama, who once asked about the U.S. automakers, “Why can’t they build a Corolla?” It must have been lost on the President that, in fact GM, and Toyota had built “Corollas” together in their joint venture Fremont CA plant that was shuttered as part of the restructuring.
Rattner doesn’t spend a lot of time on the dealer termination issue other than to emphasize that all industry experts he spoke to recommended thinning out the dealer body. I suspect the primary industry expert was Steve Girsky, a one time advisor to the UAW that was disqualified for Team Auto membership by virtue of that relationship. Girksy has been an outspoken advocate of fewer but larger dealers in the interest of efficiency, as he puts it.
Rattner also fails to mention input by the Pentagon to the Bush Administration over concern over a collapse of the country’s industrial base and how it would impact military procurement in the middle of 2 wars.
Chrysler is doing better than anyone anticipated. Both companies are exceeding the conservative projections assigned to them.
There are still issues at GM as evidenced by yet another CEO change as GM board member Dan Ackerson is taking over as CEO after Ed Whitacre “retired“ after only a few months in the job. Rattner also chronicles the ongoing conflict between the old GM board members and the new ones. The are many “players” who will be unhappy with Rattner’s revelations, which is just one good reason to read it. He must have kept writing new chapters as things have unfolded, all the way up to publication of the book. There are chapters yet to be written, but any student of politics, economics, or the auto business needs to read this book.