21 November, 2008

Markets let down by Washington as Lawmakers delay auto bailout for American Carmakers

For the second time a needed bailout that was, wasn't. Yesterday's market session traded higher by mid-day as Traders were looking for US lawmakers to outline a plan to bail out the American automotive industry. Instead they got grand-standing and lecturing from US senators bent on making automotive executives look foolish in the political spectrum.

A $25Billion package for the big 3 American automakers seems like small peanuts compared to the $700Billion package passed to bail out banks and mortgage lenders, however Ford (F), General Motors (GM) and Chrysler were forced to beg hat-in-hand at the feet of Washington's might.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see trends that had been developing in America. Big Trucks and SUVs selling furiously taking up all showroom space, and more importantly development time and dollars within American factories. All the while strong smaller Japanese and European models made their imprint within the buying habits of American consumers.

Then oil spiked higher and credit froze. The big 3 were unable to resell virtually any of their gigantic fleet of leased vehicles, mainly because even Americans were not buying Trucks with gas at $4/gallon. This led to substantial write-downs and quarterly losses, and a situation where the companies were burning through cash so quickly they are unable to sustain themselves any further. To complicate matters more, Union contracts that have been crippling the business slowly for years are now coming to the forefront showcasing just how much money is spent on pensions, insurance and benefits for American Autoworkers. Oh and then of course Americans went into full out Recession mode in October and stopped buying cars at all.

Chevrolet's answer to the problems, the Volt, coming in 2011, could be too little too late. Ford is trying to put "hybrid" on just about every model and seemingly can not find the wisdom to bring some of their more successful small European cars into the American market. All the while Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC) continue to lead in fuel efficient vehicles while Germany's big 3 dominate mind-share in the luxury segment.

So Detroit went to Washington for help and got smacked around by lawmakers trying to look political as markets around them fell further with every word. The United States Auto Industry is broken, everyone knows it, Senators in a special session will not have uncovered the Lost Ark by saying so. The grand-standing under the guise of "protecting the tax-payer" is all well and good but wouldn't those tax payers be more concerned if their retirement packages, employee stock plans and investment accounts were worth half as much as they were last year?

Did these not people learn anything the first time around when the initial banking bailout failed to pass? Senators and Congress made a lot of speeches about concerned citizens calling worried about their tax dollars going to bailout Wall St. Then the market dropped 700 points in the span of a couple of hours and Joe Q. Public started calling not about his taxes but about his retirement account.

Now Lawmakers have every right to ask Detroit for a turn-around plan before they give them any handouts but this type of thing can not be all or nothing. Authorize an influx of $9Billion to keep the companies and all their workers solvent till the end of the year and then reconvene later to authorize another $16Billion contingent upon seeing evidence of new company direction in the face of a changing industry. And like everything political in America, of course the $25Billion in question had already been set aside for the Auto Industry to use for other means.

But Lawmakers did a lot of shouting and finger pointing but little else thus leading the S&P to an almost 50% decline year-to-date. Amonst the trillions in market losses already sustained by economic and recessionary pressures what's another $25Billion if it will instill some hope to the millions of workers employed by the industry, the markets and the US economy in general.

But then again gas prices fell below $2/gallon so maybe Trucks will sell again. Once this pesky recession subsides that is.

Disclosure: Author holds no position in any aforementioned companies

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