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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rattner Revelations

Written for WARDS Dealer Business, MAY 2010
David Ruggles
In mid May I had the opportunity to attend the annual Chicago Federal Reserve Bank conference on the auto industry entitled “After the Perfect Storm: Competitive Forces Shaping the Auto Industry.” The conference was held at the Federal Reserve facility in Detroit. I made the trip primarily because of one speakers was Steven Rattner, former counselor to the Secretary of Treasury and one of the 3 heads of the government’s Auto Task Force tasked with rescuing Chrysler and GM and the rest of the country’s manufacturing base. The two other heads of the government’s Auto Task Force were Steve Girsky and Ron Bloom. While Mr. Rattner is currently hawking a book he hasn’t yet finished having been severed from Quadrangle, the investment firm he founded, Girsky and Bloom hold interesting positions.
Mr. Girsky is now on the GM Board of Directors, representing the UAW’s VEBA trust. The trust owns 17.5% of GM stock. He is also a special adviser to GM CEO Ed Whitacre, reportedly picking up an extra 900K for that gig, along with the 200K for being a Director. Then there are the living expenses for travel to and from Detroit. Many believe Girsky to be the father of the dealer terminations. According to the Detroit Free Press, Mr. Girsky is also tasked with keeping Mr. Whitacre from embarrassing himself, explaining terminology like “residual value” and “throughput.” I guess there is no perceived embarrassment associated with the executive churning going on at GM, or at least Mr. Girsky wasn’t able to prevent it.
As for Ron Bloom, his official title is Senior Advisor, U.S. Treasury Department; White House Senior Counselor for Manufacturing Policy.
Rattner’s presentation included a reference to “Obama the socialist” accusations. The mention of this sent the room into a derisive chuckle. According to Rattner, the ownership stake in GM and Chrysler was taken, not out of a socialist bent, but because of the practical observation that releasing the two auto makers from bankruptcy saddled with debt would be counter productive. I expect proof of the correctness of that decision will be shown when GM stages a successful IPO. Debt or stock, the lesser of two evils. Brief government ownership or a less than viable debt structure? Or, let the industry burn down and rebuild itself over time. We’ll never know what might have happened if different decisions were made.
Rattner demonstrates a respectful deference to the intellect of Obama and Larry Summers. Despite Bloom, Girsky, and Rattner, it seems clear that Larry Summers “drove the bus” for the administration. According to Rattner it was the Bush administration that wanted to appoint a czar. This was vetoed once Obama took office.
According to Rattner, the team expected the constituent parties to come to the Task Force and ask, “What can we do to help?” Instead they were surprised to find the parties taking a hard line and making demands as if they were negotiating from a position of strength. The worst, he said, were the bondholders. The worst part was they were not able to come together so the Task Force could deal with one entity representing all of them. The lack of this and their intransigence probably led them to do worse in the final settlement than they otherwise might have.
The Task Force was made up of people with precious little auto business experience. It still isn’t clear how they were selected. The lack of auto business experience undoubtedly led to both good and bad policies. A good result might be that they had no loyalty to a particular set of industry values, values that might be some of the reason the car companies were in the predicament they were in in the first place. Some of the things the Task Force did were brilliant. Some were just mistaken.
Let’s take the dealer terminations. According to Rattner, the priority of the Task Force was to be sensitive to political perceptions. They felt it was important for the public to perceive that the various constituent parties each made sacrifices. They failed to understand that dealers were not a constituent party, but are in fact the automaker’s only customers. End user consumers are the customer of the dealer. But the Task Force set out to deliver a “haircut” to dealers as if they were a true constituent group. This seems to be entirely due to a fundamental misunderstanding of how the auto market works and a desire to satisfy perceived political considerations. In fact, it was a hugely counter productive move. It has enraged the Chrysler and GM’s dealer customers who will likely never trust them again. Pre bankruptcy, the OEM/dealer relationship was tenuous at best. It is worse now. GM CEO Ed Whitacre seems to be embracing dealer re-instatements. Why wouldn’t he? Each dealer buys vehicles and parts from the OEM. Of course, industry newcomer Whitacre hasn’t shown any consistent level of astuteness with his misstatement regarding GM’s so called “loan repayment” and his churning of executives.
I specifically asked Rattner if Steve Girsky was the driver of the dealer terminations, as is believed by many. According to Rattner, Girsky was a private citizen when the decision was made to terminate the dealers. He then launched into a Girsky like defense of why dealers were terminated, which didn't seem to convince anyone in the room, especially myself. This was after he had just explained the concern about political perceptions.
Rattner and the Task Force were especially surprised at the backlash associated with the forced resignation of GM CEO Rick Wagoner. The President and the Task Force couldn’t justify entrusting additional billions more of taxpayer money to a CEO with a “practically unblemished record of failure.” The losses in Wagoner’s last 4 years topped 80 billion dollars. He presided over a loss of market share of from 33% to 18%. But the “firing” further played into the groundswell of right wing media hype already trying to characterize President Obama as a socialist.
According to Rattner, the Task Force seriously entertained the idea of letting Chrysler liquidate. They couldn’t see a compelling business case for Chrysler. The company had been gutted by first Daimler and then Cerberus. It had no new product in the pipeline other than the Daimler ML series based Grand Cherokee built in Vance Alabama scheduled for the 2011 model year. It was thought that Jeep alone might survive and would be snapped up by someone. It was also considered that a Chrysler shut down would also help GM. Given the financial environment, it was less than clear what financing possibilities for a quick Jeep sale might be available. It took Sergio Marchionne and his seemingly wild scheme backed up by ZERO cash to persuade the Task Force to take a “flier” on Chrysler.
Another surprise was that consumers continued to buy vehicles from a bankrupt auto maker. The Task Force’s projections were much less optimistic in terms of sales than has actually occurred.
Rattner expressed shock and surprise at the political weight wielded by auto dealers. He greatly resents the “Rejected/Wind-Down Dealer Arbitration Bill” signed into law by the President. He did admit that a “few hundred dealers, more or less, won’t make a big difference in the big scheme of things.”
The next day I attended an economic conference in Chicago. Dealer Tammy Darvish, was on a panel and I had an opportunity to question her. Ms. Darvish has been the prime mover behind the successful dealer movement to roll back dealer terminations through arbitration. It was the legislation sponsored by her organization that the President signed and Rattner deeply resents. She has been a burr under the saddle of the Task Force and the administration. So what, I say? She’s right and they are wrong, at least on this issue.
Ms. Darvish and I might disagree on one thing. I believe that GM and Chrysler absolutely had the right under BK law to terminate dealers. I’m not sure she agrees with that, preferring to refer to the dealer terminations as “un-American.” My point is that terminating dealers was counterproductive to saving GM and Chrysler, legal or not. It has, and will, cost the 2 restructured OEMs significant sales. It has saved them no money, aided Ford, the transplants, and the imports, and alienated their remaining dealer base. I believe they did it “because they could,” not because it was productive in the big picture. But GM and Chrysler will survive this.
It is clear Tammy Darvish and Steve Rattner don’t like each other. She referred to Rattner, Girsky, and Bloom as “purely awful and mean people.”
While the bailouts aren’t complete, GM’s breakeven point has been reduced from 16.5 million SAAR to 10 million. Things are even looking brighter for Chrysler. GM and Chrysler both reported recent quarterly profits. Most of taxpayer investment, if not all, is expected to be recouped. In fact, the taxpayers could make a significant profit.
Rattner and Darvish in the same week. What more could I ask for?