Bail Out the Detroit Auto Manufacturers? Posner's Comment
Becker has laid out the case for refusing to bail out GM, Ford, and Chrysler. It is a powerful case, and if the drop in auto sales that is driving these companies toward insolvency had occurred two years ago, there would be in my view no case, other than a political one, for a bailout. But in the current financial crisis, I believe a bailout is warranted, provided that the shareholders and managers of the companies are not allowed to profit from it.
There are two types of corporate bankruptcy: liquidation and reorganization (Chapter 7 and Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, respectively). In a liquidation the bankrupt company closes down, lays off all its workers, and sells all its assets. That probably would not be the efficient solution to the problems of the Detroit automakers. They are still producing millions of motor vehicles per year, and if they suddenly ceased production entirely there would be a big shortage even though demand is way down. To put this another way, although at present the companies are probably losing money on virtually every vehicle they sell, at a lower level of production the price at which they sold their vehicles would exceed marginal cost.
The alternative to liquidation--reorganization--can work well in normal times, as in the United Air Lines bankruptcy that Becker mentions. The reorganized business is able to borrow money because its post-bankruptcy borrowings ("debtor in possession" loans, as they are called) are given priority over its pre-bankruptcy debts, which are usually written down in bankruptcy, reducing the reorganized firm's debt costs and thereby enabling it to recover solvency. The debts that get written down can include health and pension benefits, which in the case of the auto companies continue to be a big drag on profitability.
The major problems with allowing the automakers to be forced into bankruptcy within the next few months are three, all arising from the depression that the nation appears to be rapidly sinking into. The first problem is that the companies might have to liquidate, because they might be unable to attract the substantial post-bankruptcy loans that they would need to enable them to remain in business. The credit crunch--less politely the near insolvency of much of the banking industry--has made that industry unable or unwilling to make risky loans, and loans to the auto companies after they declared bankruptcy would be risky.
Second, not only the size of the automakers, but peculiarities of the industry, would cause bankruptcy to greatly exacerbate the nation's already dire economic condition. In the very short term, the automakers would probably stop paying their suppliers, which would precipitate a number of the latter--already in perilous straits because of the plunge in the number of motor vehicles being produced--into bankruptcy. Many of the suppliers would probably liquidate, generating many layoffs. At the other end of the supply-distribution chain, consumers would be reluctant to buy cars or other motor vehicles manufactured by a bankrupt company because they would worry that the manufacturer's warranties would be unenforceable. So more dealerships would close, producing more bankruptcies, liquidations, and layoffs. With the demand for the vehicles made by the Detroit automakers further depressed and the supply-distribution chain in disarray, the liquidation of those companies would begin to loom as a real and imminent possibility. Liquidation of the automakers would produce an enormous number of layoffs up and down the chain of supply and distribution. Such prospects reinforce the unlikelihood that a reorganized industry could survive on debtor in possession loans.
The likely psychological impact of a bankruptcy of the U.S.-owned auto industry should not be underestimated. Already consumers, rendered fearful by repeated misinformation from government officials concerning the gravity of the economic situation (including their reluctance to acknowledge that the nation was even in a ‚Äúrecession,‚Äù long after it was obvious to the man in the street that we were in something worse), are reducing their buying, precipitating big layoffs in the retail industry, which in turn reduce buying power, which in turn spurs more layoffs. This vicious cycle would be accelerated by the laying off of hundreds of thousands of workers in the automobile industry, including employees of suppliers and dealers as well as of the manufacturers.
The U.S.-owned auto industry may be doomed; it may simply be unable to compete with foreign manufacturers (including foreign manufacturers that have factories in the U.S.); or a reorganization in bankruptcy may be the industry's eventual salvation. But the automakers should be kept out of the bankruptcy court until the depression bottoms out and the economy begins to grow again. (Recall that the government bailed out the airlines after 9/11, allowing United Air Lines to have an orderly bankruptcy reorganization beginning the following year and ending in 2006.) Any bailout, however, should come with strict conditions, to minimize the inevitable moral hazard effects of government bailouts of sick companies. The government should insist on being compensated by receipt of preferred stock in the companies, on the companies' ceasing to pay dividends, and on caps on executive compensation, including severance pay.
A possible alternative would be for the government to refuse to bail out the industry but agree to provide the necessary debtor in possession loans to keep the auto companies from liquidating after they declare bankruptcy. But this would be a kind of bailout, and probably would not be sufficient to avert the shock effects that I have described.