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Published: Friday, 11/18/2005

As General Motors goes, so goes the nation? Hope not

DETROIT - Five years ago, the idea that General Motors might someday declare bankruptcy wasn't even imaginable. Sure there were plenty of critics of the company's slow response to trends and its sloppy, bloated, overpaid management.

But there was always a feeling that GM, like harsh winters, would always be with us. That is, until now.

The Bank of America startled investors last week by proclaiming that it considered it "inevitable" that General Motors, long the world's largest corporation, would declare bankruptcy.

For some time, Wall Street has downgraded GM bonds to junk status. This year, the stock fell to its lowest point since 1982 after GM posted a $1.6 billion loss for the July-September period alone.

Paul Eisenstein, a veteran auto-industry writer and founder of The Car Connection.com, said that boom-and-bust stories are standard throughout the industry.

Except, there is a general feeling that this one is different. This time, it is not going to be enough to weather the storm until cars are selling well again.

"How bad is the situation at General Motors? Some think it is worse than we know. What frightens me is the possibility that it is worse even than GM knows," he said.

That was echoed by Gerald Meyers, who was chairman of the former American Motors Corp. before it was merged with Renault in 1984. (AMC, which included Jeep, later became part of Chrysler.)

"I would say they are in very bad shape indeed," said Mr. Meyers, who is now a business professor at the University of Michigan. "The company will survive in some form. But the question is what that is going to look like."

Despite the Bank of America warning, neither analyst thought bankruptcy very likely. "The minute you do that, people stop buying the cars," Mr. Meyers said. They worry whether the dealership is still there, whether they can get service and parts.

That would be the final kiss of death.

Mr. Eisenstein thinks it is more likely that the automaker's CEO, Richard Wagoner, won't keep his job much longer. "He probably bought his short-term survival by the agreement last week with the United Auto Workers, in which the union agreed to cuts in health-care coverage that should save GM $1 billion a year."

But that looks a lot less impressive against a total company loss of nearly $4 billion in the first nine months of 2005, with more red ink looming in the future. "Wagoner said something a few months ago that would have gotten any other CEO fired," Mr. Eisenstein said.

"He said if he had to do it over, he would have concentrated more on product a few years ago," i.e., building better cars.

What is General Motors' future going to look like? Both analysts expect to see a stripped-down company, with a market share of less than 20 percent.

Mr. Eisenstein thinks there eventually will be six or seven automakers, all of roughly the same size, fighting for every consumer. Those will include Toyota, Honda, and the Kia group, along with the traditional Big Three.

But all bets are off if corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian does in fact stage a successful takeover of GM.

As of last week, he had bought more than 10 percent of the stock and was asking for a seat on the board. "He is a brilliant money man. But he has no knowledge of how to run a car company, or I, think, any desire to run one," Mr. Meyers said.

What he fears would happen is that Mr. Kerkorian might buy the company, sell off GMAC, the highly profitable financing arm, and swiftly abandon the rest. Then General Motors probably would cease to be, with ominous consequences for Michigan.

That's especially sobering when you consider that in the 1960s General Motors sometimes sold more than half of all the cars sold in North America.

In October, Detroit saw a new unwelcome milestone of a different kind. For the first time ever, Ford, GM, and Daimler-Chrysler put together sold less than half the cars sold in America.

And according to Wall Street, General Motors, as an entire company, is now not only worth less than Ford, it is worth less, based on the price of the shares, than the Gap clothing-store chain.

‚óŹ

Michigan may not be growing as fast as many other states, except, that is, when it comes to whitetail deer.

When firearms hunting season opened last week, sportsmen estimated that there were 1.5 million deer roaming the state, a quarter of whom soon may be venison.

Ninety years ago, there were thought to be no more than 45,000.

One big downside of the deer explosion: 65,000 car-deer collisions last year, some even within big cities.



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