Dr. Goolsbee gets it wrong on the auto loans

This morning on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace moderated a discussion about the auto industry. One of his guests was Dr. Austan Goolsbee, who is a Member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and chief economist on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

I want to focus on some incorrect and inflammatory statements by Dr. Goolsbee this morning:

Chris Wallace: I also want you to talk about the clash between policy and profits. The governments wants General Motors to make small cars, fuel-efficient cars, while all the indications are, that according to the market, the cars they make most profit on are SUVs and pickup trucks. So which takes preference? Profits for the taxpayer shareholders, or environmental policy?

Dr. Goolsbee: The President made totally clear in his remarks, and he specifically said we are not going to be in the business of telling General Motors or anybody else what kind of cars to make, where they should open their plants, or anything of the sort. The President made clear we want to get out of this as quickly as possible. We are only in this situation because somebody else kicked the can down the road, and that’s really an understatement. They shook up the can, they opened the can, and handed to us in our laps.Senator Shelby knows that to be true. When George Bush put money in to General Motors, almost explicitly with the purpose, how many dollars do they need to stay alive until January 20th, 2009? There was no commitment to restructuring, to making these viable enterprises of any kind. They made none of the serious sacrifices. And Republicans in the Senate attached a list of conditions, they opposed George Bush’s intervention, because they said the unions had not made the following sacrifices. In the Obama plan, it asked more and received more from the unions and from the other stakeholders than the people that objected to the bailout last November asked for. So we have finally put them on that path.

This is incorrect. I will bite my lip, refrain from commenting on the tone, and focus on the facts.

History

At 3:30 pm on Sunday, November 30, 2008, a quiet meeting occurred at the Treasury Department in Secretary Hank Paulson’s office. Present for the Bush Administration were Treasury Secretary Paulson and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, Deputy COS Joel Kaplan, White House Legislative Affairs chief Dan Meyer, Treasury Legislative Affairs head Kevin Fromer, and me. Present for the incoming Obama Administration were Deputy COS-designate Mona Sutphen, NEC-designate Dr. Larry Summers, Dan Turullo (now a Fed Governor), and WH Legislative Affairs-designate Phil Schiliro. We had requested the meeting. They agreed and asked that it be held outside the White House. It appeared to us that they were quite concerned about leaks, and about the risk of creating a public impression that they were working closely with us.

At that meeting, we (the Bush team) floated a proposal to establish an auto czar. President Bush would create a new position called a Financial Viability Advisor (FVA) through an executive order. The President would instruct the FVA, for any auto manufacturer that sought a “bridge loan,” to evaluate that firm’s restructuring plan for viability. If after 60 days (which the FVA could unilaterally extend for another 30) the firm did not have a plan to achieve viability, then the FVA would produce his own plan to make that firm viable. The draft executive order was explicit that the FVA could include a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in his plan. We invited the Obama team to suggest names for the Financial Viability Advisor, so that it would be someone with whom the new President would be comfortable.

Under the Bush team’s proposal to the Obama team, the current Secretary of the Treasury (Paulson) would provide bridge funding from the TARP, and he would state that, as a matter of policy, no further TARP funding would be made available except in support of (1) a plan certified as viable by the FVA, or (2) the FVA’s own plan.

The key to success of this plan was that the Obama team would publicly link arms with us and agree that they would continue the Paulson policy statement when they took over after January 20th. Thus, the auto company’s stakeholders would know that they had no wiggle room, and that they had no chance of getting additional funding from the next Administration. The Obama team would voluntarily commit itself to be bound by the restriction self-imposed by the Bush team.

Remember that this was one of two huge issues going on at the time. The bigger issue was the financial crisis, and we were nearing the limit on the $350 B of available TARP funds. We were concerned that another too-big-to-fail institution might fail before January 20th without Treasury having the funds available to prevent a systemic collapse. So our proposal to the Obama team was a package deal: we will announce the above process for autos, and we will ask Congress for the second $350 B of TARP funding, if the President-elect publicly supports us on both. They would join with us in convincing Congress to approve the last tranche of TARP funding, since we would need help with Congressional Democrats.

We saw two huge economic issues that posed grave risks to the economy and to a smooth transition. We proposed to work together with the incoming Administration in a way that we thought minimized these risks and would have positioned the new President as well as possible on January 20th. GM and Chrysler would not be in liquidation, and there would be a strict, tight, and enforceable deadline (of about March 1) and process for GM and Chrysler to become viable or to have time to prepare for an orderly Chapter 11 process. We would have a cushion in case another major financial institution failed in the last eight weeks, and the next President would not have to be bothered with having to ask Congress for the last $350 B from the TARP.

The Obama team were polite and professional. They listened carefully and gave little reaction in the meeting. We concluded based on their questions in that meeting that they were leaning against the proposal, because they did not want to be bound by the judgment of a Financial Viability Advisor – they wanted the ability to make decisions in the White House. They also appeared to want to avoid being bound by our strict definition of viability. (We defined a viable firm as one that would, under reasonable assumptions, have a positive net present value without additional taxpayer assistance.)

Dr. Goolsbee was not in this meeting. I do not know if he was aware of it, either back in November or this morning.

Despite multiple efforts to get the Obama team on board, they did not take up our proposal, nor did they suggest any modifications. At the end of that week we gave up on that approach and began to negotiate a bill with Speaker Pelosi, Chairman Barney Frank, and Chairman Chris Dodd that would provide bridge loans from previously appropriated non-TARP funds.Senate Republicans blocked that bill. Congress adjourned for the year and went home. In the last week of December, GM and Chrysler told us they would file under Chapter 11 in early January if they did not get loans from the TARP. They also told us, as did countless outside experts, that they were not ready for such a filing, and that Chapter 11 would lead to near-immediate liquidation. We estimated that about 1.1 million jobs would be lost if this happened.

Confronted with a choice between loaning TARP funds to GM and Chrysler, and allowing both to liquidate in the weeks before his successor took office, President Bush authorized loans from the TARP to GM and Chrysler. We had warned Senate Republicans earlier that month that the President would face this choice if legislation failed. This was (and still is) a politically unpopular decision, and was the least worst of two bad options. Based both on his public comments and what I saw privately, President Bush wanted to give the firms a limited amount of time and a hard back end to prepare for and, if necessary, to force an orderly Chapter 11 process. He also knew that President-elect Obama would be facing tremendous challenges in his first days in office.Despite their different political parties and policy perspectives, President Bush stressed that we needed to provide his successor with the time and space he would need in the opening weeks of his Presidency.

Structure of the December loans to GM and Chrysler

In the last few days of December, Treasury loaned $24.9 B from TARP to GM, Chrysler, and their financing companies.

According to the terms of the loan (see pages 5-6 of the GM term sheet), by February 17th GM and Chrysler would have to submit restructuring plans to the President’s designee (and they did).

Each plan had to “achieve and sustain the long-term viability, international competitiveness and energy efficiency of the Company and its subsidiaries.” Each plan also had to “include specific actions intended” to achieve five goals. These goals came from the legislation we negotiated with Frank, Pelosi, and Dodd:

  1. repay the loan and any other government financing;
  2. comply with fuel efficiency and emissions requirements and commence domestic manufacturing of advanced technology vehicles;
  3. achieve a positive net present value, using reasonable assumptions and taking into account all existing and projected future costs, including repayment of the Loan Amount and any other financing extended by the Government;
  4. rationalize costs, capitalization, and capacity with respect to the manufacturing workforce, suppliers and dealerships; and
  5. have a product mix and cost structure that is competitive in the U.S.

The Bush-era loans also set non-binding targets for the companies. There was no penalty if the companies developing plans missed these targets, but if they did, they had to explain why they thought they could still be viable. We took the targets from Senator Corker’s floor amendment earlier in the month:

  1. reduce your outstanding unsecured public debt by at least 2/3 through conversion into equity;
  2. reduce total compensation paid to U.S. workers so that by 12/31/09 the average per hour per person amount is competitive with workers in the transplant factories;
  3. eliminate the jobs bank;
  4. develop work rules that are competitive with the transplants by 12/31/09; and
  5. convert at least half of GM’s obliged payments to the VEBA to equity.

If, by March 31, the firm did not have a viability plan approved by the President’s designee, then the loan would be automatically called. Presumably the firm would then run out of cash within a few weeks and would enter a Chapter 11 process. We gave the President’s designee the authority to extend this process for 30 days.

In another error this morning, Dr. Goolsbee claimed the “Obama plan, it asked more and received more from the unions and from the other stakeholders than the people that objected to the bailout last November asked for.” As I wrote last Monday (Understanding the GM bankruptcy), I have seen no convincing evidence that GM workers will now be paid competitive compensation with transplant workers, nor that the work rules are competitive with the transplants. The negotiations led by the Obama team did meet the Corker targets for the unsecured debt holders and the retiree benefits, but current workers still look to have received a relatively good deal.

Chronology

November 30: Bush team proposes joint solution to Obama team.

The following week: Obama team declines to respond. Bush team begins negotiations with House and Senate Democrats.

Mid-December: Bush team negotiates compromise legislation with House and Senate Democrats. Senate Republicans block the legislation. Congress goes home.

Late December: President Bush authorizes the above-described three month loans to GM and Chrysler.

January 20: President Obama takes office.

Mid-February: GM and Chrysler submit their first viability plans, per the terms of the Bush-era loans.

End of March: President Obama says GM and Chrysler have failed to develop viable plans, as required by the Bush-era loans. He gives Chrysler 30 more days, and GM about 60 until the end of May.

End of April: Chrysler files Chapter 11 with a pre-packaged plan negotiated largely by the Obama Administration.

June 1: GM does the same. Chrysler emerges from Chapter 11.

Responding to Dr. Goolsbee

Let’s again examine Dr. Goolsbee’s claim:

We are only in this situation because somebody else kicked the can down the road, and that’s really an understatement. They shook up the can, they opened the can, and handed to us in our laps. Senator Shelby knows that to be true. When George Bush put money in to General Motors, almost explicitly with the purpose, how many dollars do they need to stay alive until January 20th, 2009? There was no commitment to restructuring, to making these viable enterprises of any kind. They made none of the serious sacrifices.

Even if Dr. Goolsbee was not privy to the quiet discussion we had with the senior Obama team last November, the public record refutes his claim:

  1. The Obama team declined to respond to the Bush team’s offer to work together to create a joint process that would have resulted in a resolution by March 1st or April 1st, rather than by June 1st for Chrysler and maybe September 1st for GM.
  2. We then worked with the Democratic majority to enact legislation that would have limited funds to be available only to firms that would become viable.
  3. After Congress left town for the holidays without having addressed the issue, President Bush was faced with a choice between providing loans and allowing these firms to liquidate in early January, which would have further exacerbated the economic situation for the incoming President. President Bush chose to provide the loans.
  4. We provided GM and Chrysler with sufficient funds to get to March 31st, not January 20th, and in those loans we gave the incoming Administration the ability to extend them for 30 more days.
  5. The loans were conditioned on restructuring to become viable, with a precise definition of viability, specific restructuring goals, and quantitative targets.
  6. The Obama Administration followed the restructuring process laid out in the Bush-era loans. They are now measuring that deal against the targets established in the Bush-era loans. The only changes the Obama team made were that they extended GM for 60 days rather than 30, and the Obama Administration directly inserted themselves into the negotiations as the pre-packager.

Dr. Goolsbee’s comments this morning were both inflammatory and incorrect.

41 responses

  1. Keith

    this is fabulous. what incredible documentation. are you out there talking ot correct the record???

  2. This is fabulous, and needs to make the rounds. If nothing else, it needs to get on FoxNew. Great piece! Please, please spread it around. This man needs to be called on EVERY BS comment, or conservatism will never come back.

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  5. Yours is the best new economics blog on the web, and certainly the most immediately useful; the inside detail on decisions in the Bush Administration is of considerable historical value, but also very important to on-going political decisions. Keep it up. Truly distinguished work.

  6. Its frickin disgusting that our fascist government is telling private companies how to be structured. GM and Chrysler clearly didn’t ant a the “bailout”(forced buyout with stol;en tAaxpayer money).

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  9. Who says that blogs don’t provide news of great value “because they don’t hire real reporters and give them travel budgets”? Somebody said that, yesterday.

    But what reporter could give news of anywhere near the value of this from Keith Hennessey?

    Watch the MSM scramble to confuse, obfuscate and contradict.

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  12. Mr. Hennesey,

    Did you really fall for the “not ready” for Chapter 11 because it ” would lead to near-immediate liquidation” threat from failed managers? Or are you willing to sound silly out of loyalty to Bush?

  13. I watched enough of Goolsbee with Mike Wallace to conclude two things. First, he fits nicely within this administration, which will be blaming Bush for literally everything as long as it is able to retain power. Second, Goolsbee himself would not be a viable electoral candidate for the Democrats, as he lacks the single most important attribute – the ability to lie convincingly.

    Obama should send him back to deal with trade policy, where he was so deft during the campaign.

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  16. You guys should have let GM and Chrysler file Chapter 11 – even liquidation would have been better that the takeover of the industry by the government and union we now have. You blew it.

  17. I thought the more disturbing thing about Goolsbee’s interview was his claim that the rising unemployment rate was a good thing as the rate ticked up, because people were less discouraged without providing any convincing evidence.

  18. I’m sure Keith Olberman will set the record straight tonight on the Obama Network.

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