Are the Big Three worth saving?

Are the Big Three worth saving?

The U.S. auto industry's downward spiral has accelerated dramatically in recent weeks. In a desperate bid for solvency, General Motors Corp. is seeking a merger with Chrysler. Chrysler has talked with Renault and Nissan about partnerships. And Ford Motor Co., GM and Chrysler — backed by Michigan lawmakers — are lobbying Washington to give them cash, implying that failure to provide a bailout could doom the industry to bankruptcy.

In September, Congress approved $25 billion in loan guarantees for automakers, and rules for those loans are being drafted. But the companies say they need more — now.

GM, Ford and Chrysler are burning through cash far more quickly than they're bringing it in, sales have fallen off a cliff and none of them has been able to borrow money in months because of the credit crisis.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday that officials at the Treasury, Energy and Commerce departments were discussing aid to automakers. Options might include buying equity stakes in the companies, providing more loans, guaranteeing their borrowing or buying troubled auto loans. Bush administration officials, she added, were "working as quickly as we possibly can" to speed disbursement of the loans.

A Ford Credit spokeswoman said Monday that the company had applied for new short-term loans offered by the Federal Reserve to businesses having trouble borrowing. Recent news reports indicate that GM and Chrysler are seeking about $10 billion in government funds to support their merger.

Meanwhile, the bad news continues.

On Monday, rating agency Moody's downgraded Chrysler and GM debt for the second time in three months, as well as the debt of Ford's lending arm, citing "the pace and severity of erosion in the U.S. automotive sector" and suggesting that the companies might have difficulty remaining solvent through 2009.

With about 200,000 U.S. employees, hundreds of thousands more abroad and $400 billion in annual revenue among the Big Three, the prospect of failure by any of them is worrisome. Yet, there is considerable debate about what might happen if they did fail.

Some analysts, economists and industry insiders predict a financial cataclysm, while others foresee little more than a shift of the industry to foreign companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.

Some argue that, in the long term, the U.S. economy would be better off moving past automobile manufacturing.

"A failure from the Big Three would be a huge, huge hit," said Donald Grimes, a research specialist at the University of Michigan. "But there's a real question about whether there's room for all of them."

Others posit that the failure of just one of the Big Three would send shock waves through the entire manufacturing sector that could devastate suppliers and freeze up the other two carmakers. Hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost.

"If Ford or GM goes down, you take a two-million-job hit" that also would dump hundreds of thousands of retirees on the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research.

Chrysler and GM will be responsible for an estimated $90 billion in pension and health-insurance benefits by 2017.

In October, the center began running what it calls "catastrophe studies" to predict the consequences of an automaker's failure. The studies project a toll of up to 2 percent of gross domestic product.

"The hit to the economy is $200 (billion) to $300 billion," Cole said.

The Big Three's slow loss of market share to foreign brands accelerated in the 1990s. In the 1970s, GM controlled more than 40 percent of the U.S. market; in 2008, foreign carmakers account for 51 percent of U.S. sales.

What's more, many foreign automakers have plants in the U.S. So far in 2008, 27 percent of the cars bought in the United States were built in U.S. plants owned by foreign carmakers.

That, says David Gregory, law professor at St. John's University and a former labor representative for Ford, clearly indicates where the industry is headed.

Because companies such as Nissan Motor Co., with a huge operation in Tennessee, and BMW, which builds vehicles in South Carolina, have erected plants in areas where labor is inexpensive and local laws make it difficult to establish unions, they have a huge cost advantage over Detroit.

In fall 2007, the Big Three renegotiated their contracts with the United Auto Workers union, imposing a two-tier wage structure that is more competitive with foreign automakers. But they won't see many of the benefits until 2010.

"The reality is that Japanese and European automakers are already in the U.S. in a big way," Gregory said. "They can more than make up the capacity lost by the closure of the Big Three. I'd say they could do it in five years or less."

He and others contend that companies such as Toyota would quickly fill the void for supplier giants such as Lear Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., particularly if the economy recovers enough to boost sales to pre-2008 levels.

For laid-off autoworkers willing to relocate, they might even offer employment. Essentially, the theory goes, the net effect on employment would be nil.