Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Chrysler UAW Bailout

The auto industry bailouts during the financial crisis completely overturned our traditional legal statutes governing how creditors are treated during bankruptcies. With today's announcement that Fiat is buying out the 41.5% of Chrysler which it does not already own, these issues are as evident as ever.

A 2012 Backgrounder from the Heritage Foundation gives good information and references which are very consistent with the most recent October 2013 report from the SIGTARP Inspector General.

Chrysler has been mismanaged for many decades, and it has had several turnarounds.  None of them ever really addressed their operational and product development mismanagement, or their labor costs which were among the highest in the American automobile market.  Pre-bankruptcy labor costs at Chrysler were $76 per hour in May 2012, higher than both GM and Ford at the time and significantly higher than costs at Honda, Toyota and Nissan.

Pre-bankruptcy, Chrysler has $6.9 billion of senior secured liabilities and $2.9 billion of junior secured liabilities, according to the figures in the report.  $5 billion was owed to unsecured trade creditors.  Chrysler owed $8 billion to the VEBA (Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association) formed in 2007 to assume the liabilities of the employee retirement plans.

Bankruptcy allows the corporation to restructure its contracts, subject to two heretofore inviolable principles. Secured creditors stand first in line for recoveries, including the ability to seize encumbered assets if necessary.  Unsecured creditors are considered the great unwashed, and they are traditionally wiped out or in unusual circumstances get pennies on the dollar as recoveries.

Because of Chrysler's long, troubled financial history its bonds were secured debt, which wasn't typically the case.  Senior secured creditors of Chrysler who were owed $6.9 billion recovered $2 billion, or $0.29 on the dollar.  The junior secured creditors somehow recovered $0.0 on $2 billion owed.

In this kind of structure,  which is very unusual, the unsecured creditors, including the UAW/VEBA, should have expected nothing except to be wiped out. Instead, the Obama administration converted the $8 billion into a 41.5% stake in the reorganized Chrysler, along with a 9% note.  The total 2012 PV of the Chrysler bailout, which only benefited the UAW and its membership, was estimated at $9.2 billion in the report cited.

Labor agreements and labor costs are traditionally renounced and reset in bankruptcy agreements.  While labor costs were adjusted to close the nominal gap to Honda/Toyota/Nissan to around $56 per hour, Chrysler workers will still earn substantially more than the average U.S. manufacturing sector worker, with no ties to productivity or work rule flexibility.

The exercise of Federal control and intervention in financial markets and in matters like executive compensation of corporations in which it has bought a stake at gunpoint will surely be regarded as a weakening of our economic system whose virtues we trumpet so loudly.  The government's facilitating of rent seeking by its favored political constituencies, like auto unions, is also an unprecedented manipulation of the bankruptcy process in which the role of the judges and administrative apparatus have also been marginalized. "If there's money up for grabs, I might as well be the one grabbing," a client once told me. He was a greenmailer, but his motto is still relevant today.

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