What Mitt Romney gets wrong about the Detroit automakers’ bailouts
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney renewed his opposition to the Obama administration's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler today in several Michigan newspapers, contending President Obama's rescue made the companies worse. I wish I could leave politics to the professionals, but Romney's take just doesn't square with the facts as I lived them. Here's why:
Romney's a Michigan native; his father George Romney was a well-liked governor and head of American Motors. Yet Romney is neck-and-neck with rival Rick Santorum in polls ahead of Michigan's Feb. 28 primary in no small part because of his opposition in November 2008 to the bailouts that saved GM, Chrysler and thousands of Michigan jobs.
I covered those bailouts in Washington as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, following them through Congress to the White House to the bankruptcy courts a few blocks off Wall Street. As a first-hand witness, I can attest that some of Romney's new arguments hold their own — but most don't. Let me explain, point by point:
"Three years ago, in the midst of an economic crisis, a newly elected President Barack Obama stepped in with a bailout for the auto industry."
In fact, the bailout began with President George W. Bush, who was forced to lend GM and Chrysler $17.4 billion in December 2008 after Senate Republicans blocked a rescue plan in Congress. Bush told reporters just last week that he was warned by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that if he didn't act to shore up GM and Chrysler, up to 1 million jobs could vanish. Knowing what we know now, says Bush, "I'd do it again."
"The president tells us that without his intervention things in Detroit would be worse. I believe that without his intervention things there would be better."
The crux of Romney's argument: If Obama had not acted, private companies would have stepped in and run a "managed bankruptcy." What this ignores is that in the fall of 2008, before Obama was even sworn in, no one on Wall Street or anywhere else was willing to lend GM and Chrysler a penny — let alone the $81 billion they and their financial arms eventually needed.
Both companies' bankruptcies required money on a scale not seen in legal history. Unlike airlines, which can keep running with much smaller short-term loans while they restructure, automakers need massive amounts of up-front capital to pay suppliers and workers while they build cars; their finance companies need even more to keep making car loans that can bring in revenues. The potential damage wasn't just layoffs; Chrysler executives testified on the first day of bankruptcy that without immediate cash the company risked destroying hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of equipment.
Even after Obama took office, GM and Chrysler searched frantically for paths to avoid bankruptcy, including a possible merger. Chrysler held a one-week garage sale of its assets in February 2009, inviting anyone with enough money to bid for parts of the company. No one bit.
"Ultimately, that is what happened. The course I recommended was eventually followed. GM entered managed bankruptcy in June 2009 and exited it a month later in July.