Automobiles

Treasury Admits What Everybody Already Knew: Taxpayer Losses On GM Bailout Are Going to be Massive

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Am I allowed to say, I told you so?

The Treasury Department yesterday revised its loss estimate for the Government Motors bailout from $14.33 billion to $23.6 billion, thanks to the company's sinking stock price. GM's Sept. 30 closing price, on which the new estimate is based, was $20.18, about $13 less than its December IPO price and $35 less than what is needed for taxpayers to break even.

The $23.6 billion represents a 25 percent loss on the feds $60 billion direct "investment" in GM. But that's not all that taxpayers are on the hook for. As I explained previously, Uncle Sam's special GM bankruptcy package allowed the company to write off $45 billion in previous losses going forward. This could work out to as much as $15 billion in tax savings that GM wouldn't have had had it gone through a normal bankruptcy. Why? Because after bankruptcy, the tax liabilities of companies increase since they have no more losses to write off.

This means that the total hit to taxpayers, who still own about a quarter of the company, could add up to $38.6 billion. That's even more that the $34 billion on the outside I had predicted in May.

Although GM will never, ever make taxpayers whole, taxpayer losses could be mitigated if GM's stock price rises before the Treasury sells its remaining equity, something it was supposed to do by year-end but has postponed under the circumstances. But right now at least the prospects of a serious upward move in GM's stock don't look too good for reasons at least partly beyond GM's control.

GM actually has been doing quite well in North America and China with profit margins of 10 percent, among the best in the industry. How long that will last is an open question. That's because GM's new competitors are not Toyota and Honda that share its cost structure but Hyndai and Kia that have a far leaner one. These companies concentrate on the small car market and don't offer a full product line so GM and Ford's most profitable vehicles—those evil, gas-guzzling, greenhouse-gas emitting SUV's and pickup trucks—are somewhat insulated from the downward price pressure. But the greens and Obama administration want GM to reorient its product mix away from big cars and toward money-losing hybrids and electrics, something that could well put GM back in a hole.

But that's part of the administration's long-term strategy for ruining GM. The company's big weak spot right now is Europe for two reasons: One, thanks to political pressure and labor resistance, it hasn't been able to address its bloated cost structure there. Two, Europe's economy is imploding, weakening car sales.

All of this shows why forcing taxpayers to wager their hard-earned dollars on a risky venture was exactly the wrong thing to do. But the Ostrich-in-Chief Barack Obama, who had assured taxpayers that their GM "investment" would cost them "not a dime," is drawing the opposite lesson, obviously. He has been trumpeting the success of the bailout—repeatedly. He was in Michigan recently claiming that the "investment had paid off." What's more, he declared, that now that GM is back, it is just a matter of time before Detroit is too:

"[D]espite all the work that lies ahead, this is a city where a great American industry is coming back to life and the industries of tomorrow are taking root, and a city where people are dreaming up ways to prove all the skeptics wrong and write the next proud chapter in the Motor City's history."

But the "next, proud chapter in Motor City's history" actually is likely to be bankruptcy. That's because Detroit is facing a $209 million budget deficit and is going to be completely out of operating cash by April.

Here is a very helpful piece by Detroit Free Press' editorial page editor, Stephen Henderson, explaining in gory but accurate detail just what a mess the city is in. Perhaps President Obama can glance at it before he returns here and spins some more fairytales?