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Auto Bailout Redux: Warren Buffett

…it was Bush who bailed out GM — Obama forced it into bankruptcy…
Steve Rattner’s blog points out a February 27th CNBS interview with Warren Buffet that affirms what David Ruggles and I have argued from the start on our Autos and Economics blog, and reiterated here: that the alternative to the government provision of DIP financing for an orderly Chapter 11 restructuring of GM and Chrysler (as though bankruptcy is a bailout!) was a catastrophic dissolution via Chapter 7 (“close your doors forever” bankruptcy). As Buffett notes, capital markets weren’t functioning, and there were no sources of working capital for firms seeking Chapter 11. Indeed, he himself told one of those firms “no” — and unlike banks, he was not constrained by liquidity concerns and depleted capital. Rather, everyone was hunkered down, and clearly uninterested in what a priori was a very risky venture.
Now it’s not as though the reorganization was perfect; lots of dealers had their franchises yanked, which neither lowered operating costs at GM nor improved their sales. That seems to have resulted from the input of a consultant who had worked for NADA (the National Auto Dealers Association). Of course every dealer wishes for one less competitor, but that’s a tension with every franchise system: what’s good for the franchisor is not always good for the franchisee. With hindsight there might have been wiggle room on other terms and conditions. But it’s hard to fault what was done from a real-time perspective. Indeed, the speed with which the Chapter 11 restructuring was consummated should give creditors in other bankruptcies, who often shell out staggering legal fees for years on end, food for thought. And speed was critical to the revival of GM and Chrysler, and for keeping suppliers and the rest of the domestic auto industry afloat.
Let me close with a personal reflection. We will continue to quibble over the appropriate role of government in our society. We will always find fault, too, because by and large government is engaged in providing services that can’t be quantified or for which market prices aren’t available — economists and environmental scientists can construct models to delimit how much less pollution is worth, but that’s a far cry from trying to figure out how much a gallon of milk is worth.
Overall, however, I’ve always been impressed with the service orientation of those in the public sector, from local school teachers (the biggest component of Leviathan, and certainly not in it for the money!) to individuals such as Mr. Rattner (who incurred a pile of legal bills for the privilege of serving). Kudos! — our society would be poorer without them