Monday, November 17, 2008

Detroit, Bailouts and Fuel Economy

As Congress meets today to take up the subject of rescuing the Big 3 US automakers from possible bankruptcy, I'm concerned that this issue has been conflated with energy and environmental policy, rather than being viewed as an expedient palliative. While the mix of cars made and sold in this country will certainly have a large and growing influence on the quantity of petroleum and other fuels consumed by our car fleet in the years ahead, and on its emissions, it requires several leaps of faith to travel from that indisputable fact to the proposition that only by preserving at least GM and Ford in roughly their present form can we ensure that consumers will be able to purchase highly-efficient cars made in the USA. There are other arguments for bailing out Detroit, but if it is done on the premise that US carmakers can immediately retool to make all hybrids and plug-in hybrids, everyone involved is bound to end up severely disappointed.

It has become conventional wisdom that these companies have been done in by high fuel prices, or more precisely by product strategies that assumed that gasoline would remain cheap in perpetuity. Yet while the profits of the Big 3 were indeed leveraged to the sales of large SUVs that on average deliver at least one-third worse fuel economy than their passenger car lines, Ford's stock price has been declining steadily since early 1999, when oil prices were under $15 per barrel and gasoline sold for just under $1 per gallon. GM's market value peaked in early 2000, when gasoline was around $1.50. It had already fallen by half by May 2004, when weekly average US gasoline prices breached $2.00/gal. for the first time.

Although it would be quite helpful for the parallel causes of reducing US oil imports and greenhouse gases for the Big 3 to pivot and begin producing large numbers of hybrids and plug-ins, it is by no means obvious that such a strategy--launched in the midst of what is shaping up to be the worst global and US recession in decades--constitutes a recipe for a quick return to profitability. GM's Volt plug-in hybrid (or range-extended electric vehicle, for purists) is a case in point. With a sticker price expected to be in the low $30,000 range, net of a $7,500 federal tax credit, and delivering fuel savings, the value of which has been cut in half by the precipitous decline of oil and gasoline prices, this car might make energy and environmental sense for the nation, but it looks like a tough sell to consumers in a weak economy, at least in numbers large enough to matter.

For as much attention as the Volt has garnered, it might be even more instructive to note that GM's new "Cruze" non-hybrid economy car will also not launch in the US before 2010, at the earliest. That serves as a useful reminder that it still takes several years to plan, design, and re-tool for a new model. Even converting plants to produce more of existing light-vehicle models, or to build the more efficient cars these companies already sell in Europe and elsewhere, could not be done overnight. The return on such an investment remains uncertain, as well, with the demise of lending to less-than-prime applicants contributing to car sales that have fallen to their lowest level in years. The combined passenger car sales of GM, Ford and Chrysler are off by 12% year-to-date, or more than a quarter-million cars in total. That's much better than the 25% decline in "light truck" sales compare to last year, but it confirms that there is more to Detroit's problems than just the demise of the SUV fad.

The most sobering analysis of the situation that I've read so far was a commentary in the Weekend Wall Street Journal by a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business. It points out that over the last ten years, GM and Ford collectively invested $485 billion dollars without closing the competitive gap versus Japanese carmakers, including those producing vehicles in this country. (I would add that attributing the relative success of Toyota, Honda and others to prescience about the benefits of hybrid cars represents a misleading distortion of a much more complex situation.) Along the way, their combined market capitalization fell by over $110 billion. The author decries the destruction not only of shareholder value, but national investment capital. That doesn't mean that allowing the Big 3 to fail is the wisest course, but it should at least temper our expectations that a bailout measured in the tens of billions of dollars would do more than stave off a drastic restructuring of Detroit for a brief interval.

I don't have a magic solution for saving the domestic car industry, and I doubt that anyone else does, either. By comparison, the recipe for boosting fuel economy and lowering CO2 emissions from our vehicle fleet is much simpler. Among other things, it involves higher fuel prices, whether by taxes or courtesy of OPEC, though at last week's average of $2.22/gal., gas prices were providing an implicit $260 billion per year economic stimulus, relative to the average for June and July. New incentives for consumers to buy efficient cars could also play an important role, and while the TARP bill included large tax credits for plug-in hybrids, the credits for conventional hybrids--which address the biggest increment of fuel savings--are phasing out. And we can't forget that buyers of more efficient cars need readily-available financing. That requires not just replenishing the capital of banks and other lenders, but restoring confidence that loans will be repaid. At least two of those three measures would benefit Detroit, but like a bailout, they would still fall well short of a guaranteed recovery from the hole into which the industry has fallen.

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