Big 3 might file planned bankruptcy

White House 'very close' to plan for restructuring automakers

December 19, 2008|By Jim Puzzanghera and Martin Zimmerman | Jim Puzzanghera and Martin Zimmerman,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The White House said yesterday that, instead of a financial bailout, it is considering a so-called prepackaged bankruptcy plan for General Motors and Chrysler, a move that many congressional Republicans favor but the automakers and some analysts say could lead to the companies' collapse.

Bush administration officials, while still weighing their final set of options, were "very close" to a decision, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

The White House, hoping to shield the U.S. economy from more damage, pledged this month to help Detroit stay afloat after Congress deadlocked on a bailout.

But it was clear that time was growing short. Already, GM, Chrysler and Ford have announced drastic steps to cut costs, including idling plants and slowing production - steps that add to the country's immediate economic woes even though they might be necessary to the companies' ultimate survival. Chrysler said Wednesday that it was closing its 30 factories in the U.S. and Canada for at least a month.

In an ordinary prepackaged Chapter 11 bankruptcy, companies meet with creditors and other stakeholders and work out how to restructure debt and make other changes to enable the company to survive. Only then do they go to bankruptcy court, where a judge oversees the execution of the agreed plan.

How that would work on the enormous scale of the domestic auto industry - or whether it would work at all - is not clear. And the arguments have been tinged with politics, ideology and opportunities to advance agendas not directly related to the auto industry, such as weakening or preserving unions.

Each of the big automakers has billions in liabilities, hundreds of creditors and thousands of retirees. Getting all of these parties to agree on a restructuring plan for GM might be impossible without the oversight of a bankruptcy judge, according to Craig Litherland, a bankruptcy specialist with the law firm Gilbert Oshinsky in Austin, Texas.

"I don't see how you can do that in a prepackaged bankruptcy," Litherland said. "With their legacy costs, you have tens of thousands of people who would be affected. Outside of bankruptcy court, how do you negotiate with all of those people? Who speaks for them?"

He also noted that "prepacks" tend to be a better option when the company's prospects are beginning to improve and creditors have a higher degree of confidence that restructuring will succeed.

That's not the case with GM and Chrysler. The U.S. economy is in deep recession, auto sales in November hit their lowest monthly level since 1982, and many analysts expect sales to continue to fall next year.

Supporters said a prepackaged bankruptcy would force restructuring of union contracts and other debt because the judge can void existing agreements.

"Absent such restructuring, we do not believe any amount of money will succeed in saving these companies," seven Republican senators wrote to President George W. Bush this week.

But a prepackaged bankruptcy has risks, as well as costs, for taxpayers.

If the federal government steps in with money to keep the companies operating through the bankruptcy proceedings - and GM and Chrysler say they are nearly out of operating cash now - taxpayers could be spending more than the $14 billion in short-term emergency loans GM and Chrysler are seeking.

Bush said yesterday that he had not decided how to help the automakers, although he has vowed not to let them fail. Many Republicans have been pressuring Bush not to extend loans from the $700 billion financial rescue fund for fear it would set a precedent for helping other troubled industries.

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