Monday, December 08, 2008

Dead Batteries

Electric-carmakers need cash today, tax credits to spur sales next year and every year thereafter and battery technology that makes electric cars perform like gasoline-powered vehicles.

Obama says he wants to hit taxpayers on this issue. Tax credits and other subsidies are part of his plan. Immediate cash is another matter. If GM, Ford and Chrysler are to get little from the Economic Stimulus plans whipped around these days, it's tough to cut makers of electric cars a slice of the pie.

Then there is the chief question: Why would someone buy a $40,000 Chevy Volt when a a dozen cars with internal-combustion engines sell for less than half the price?

Electric cars are not simple alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. If equivalent electric and internal-combustion models were available for roughly the same price, a real market would develop. But we are years from that point. Today, electric vehicles offer only a psychological advantage that matters to some people. But most car buyers do not care.

Who would pay $40,000 for a car with limited operating capabilities when lots of great all-around gasoline-powered vehicles are available for half as much? Furthermore, if the government pushes the public to accept electric vehicles, the prices of gasoline-powered cars will ease down, making them a better deal for anyone who considers the long-term cost of ownership.

There are 250 million internal-combustion vehicles registered in the US today. Consumers love their cars and they are not ready to switch to vehicles offering less for more money. Would more than a handful spend larger sums than they've ever spent on a car if the new high-priced model requires a lot of behavior modification to accomodate its limitations? No.

Personal computers stayed mainly in the hands of hobbyists, engineers, scientists and technology lovers until better software made them useful to millions of buyers. The Graphical User Interface did the trick. But the biggest accelerant was the Internet, a thing apart from the computers themselves.

Is there a similar advance ahead for electric vehicles? No. But if there were, it would appear as a battery that held a charge equal to the energy found in a tank of gas.

Or, perhaps, like gasoline, a universal battery pack might emerge. Every car can accept gas from any gas station in the country. Possibly the electric carmakers can create a universal battery pack that can be stocked at Recharging Stations and switched in minutes. Pull out the discharged pack, and drop in a fresh one. An operation that can be completed in a minute or two. But that means pricing the service for more than the cost of plugging in the car at home.

On the other hand, for anyone who barbeques on a gas grill, the consumer behavior is already in place. When the propane tank on the grill is empty, the barbeque chef takes the empty tank to Home Depot and exchanges it for a full one. Unfortunately, I doubt this idea will fly. That means we need batteries that hold a lot of energy. But those batteries are decades away from reality. In fact, given our understanding of chemistry and physics, we may never see batteries capable of powering electric vehicles like their internal-combustion alternatives.

Electric-Car Makers Struggle

Companies Face Similar Problems as Detroit Auto Makers -- And Some Others

The heads of the struggling Detroit auto makers aren't the only car makers looking for help from Washington. The electric vehicle industry has its hands out, too.

If anything, representatives of the electric and electrified vehicle business jumped ahead of the "legacy" auto industry in the transportation bailout queue that formed in the nation's capital last week.

The Future of Electric Vehicles

The electric-vehicle industry positions itself as the future of personal transportation. President-elect Barack Obama is now the industry's highest ranking advocate. He's said he wants to see one million plug-in vehicles by 2015, as part of his broader goal to end U.S. dependence on Mideast oil.

The credit crunch and the economic slump are slamming the crop of electric-vehicle companies that sprung up in recent years, fueled in part by Silicon Valley venture-capital money.

Tesla Motors LLC, once the darling of the green car movement, is now scrambling to stay afloat and is asking for a $400 million loan from the same $25 billion federal Energy Department program that Detroit's car makers are looking to tap in their own fight for survival.

Tesla is now taking some flak for seeking handouts from taxpayers, most of whom could never afford its current product, a racy electric sports car that starts at more than $100,000. Detroit's chiefs might say: Welcome to our world.

The electric-vehicle industry's need for government assistance doesn't stop with subsidized loans. Mr. Wynne says the government's existing tax credits for purchases of electrified vehicles – meaning all-electric and gas-electric hybrids – should be expanded. Currently the credits, which range from $2,500 for a plug-in hybrid vehicle with a four kilowatt per hour battery pack to as much as $7,500 for an electric vehicle weighing under 10,000 pounds.

The U.S. should also do more to promote development of advanced vehicle batteries. After access to capital, batteries are one of the biggest anxieties among U.S.-based electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers – from the Detroit Three down to the smallest Silicon Valley EV upstart. Right now, there's no company producing advanced automotive batteries suitable for electric vehicles or hybrids in the U.S.

To the extent that such batteries are made in volume anywhere, it's in Japan, Korea or elsewhere in Asia.

Finally, U.S. electric-vehicle makers are hoping that the government can be not just the financier of last resort, but also a customer. "The federal government owns 600,000 vehicles," Mr. Wynne says. The government should be a buyer for electric vehicles – not just cars, but commercial vehicles.

Established auto makers, including Toyota, GM, Chrysler, Nissan Motor Co., all are talking about plans to field significant numbers of partially electric or fully electric vehicles over the next several years.

Not so long ago, the electric-vehicle industry's moment seemed to have arrived, after nearly a century of frustration and failure. Soaring oil prices, technology advances and the enthusiasm of deep pocketed investors appeared to be coming together to overcome the obstacles that have relegated electric vehicles to the auto market's sidelines since the days of Thomas Edison.

Now, oil prices have crashed, clouding the economic case for switching to expensive battery-boosted cars.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Road Hogs

The Three Families of Detroit continue to threaten the US with economic catastrophe unless Taxpayers cough up at least $34 Billion NOW. And maybe more next year. Do they believe they are making an offer Taxpayers cannot refuse? If so, they had better adjust their thinking. Do they believe that America will collapse without them? If they do, then threatening the country with economic collapse if $34 billion is not forthcoming sounds worse than criminal extortion to me. It sounds like treason.

Why do the Auto Companies believe they deserve special consideration? Are the Big Three unaware of corporate history in this country? The answer must be Yes. It seems Chrysler CEO Nardelli has forgotten that it took over American Motors a couple of decades ago because the company was in collapse. What did Chrysler get? Jeep. Probably Chrysler's best line. Where did all the Ramblers go? Into the corporate history books. To business school case studies. Gone, and mostly forgotten.

The list of failed US car companies is long. But this time it's different. The heads of Detroit's Three Families refuse to do what managements are hired to do -- run profitable operations. Instead, they now want to acquire money from an alternative source -- the government. More accurately, the Taxpayers. What does this show? It shows that the auto companies have become the biggest rent-seekers in history. They refuse to be capitalists when it counts. They want to be socialists. Actually, it's worse. They're looking like communists.

According to the current plan, the government will acquire ownership of the means of production. Obama has said he wants to appoint a Car Czar. Central Planning, here we come!! Do we need a bureaucracy to tell us the number of cars to be built during the next 5-year plan?

Let's try this: Let's end the eternal struggle between Labor and Capital. If the Auto Companies want money, let the Taxpayers buy GM at its current market price of less than $3 billion and GIVE the stock to the UAW. Let the United Auto Workers own GM and let them take full charge of the company and make it work. I'll bet they'll find a way before Christmas.

The Auto Industry seems to have missed the business news during the last few decades. Probably because the main venue for getting that news is disappearing.

The Newspaper Industry is vanishing. Print media jobs have been disappearing for years. Now the Print Media itself is disappearing. Some newspapers are shutting down. Others are cutting back, becoming weeklies instead of dailies.That's just a gambit to slow the the pace of decline.

Is anyone crying over the loss of the Newspaper Industry? How about the Shoe Industry? We once made most of our own shoes here in America. Today we import 99%. Textiles. Similar story. Check your shirt collar. The label probably reads Made in Pakistan. By the way, has the loss of shoe manufacturing led to barefootedness among Americans? Or do we have so many shoe choices at so many price points that it's tough to decide which shoes to buy? How about shoe repair shops? They're everywhere.

So too are automotive repair shops. Transmission shops, Muffler Shops, Brake Shops, Oil Change facilities. Is there any part of a car that is left unserviced? No. Do people buy cars that lack comprehensive warranties? Yes. Millions of them every year. Used cars. They're cheaper than new cars, and the lack of warranty coverage is a big reason.

By the way, what's included in a warranty? Of course, the obvious. But GM loses about $1,500 per car. As we all know, warranties are a big source of profits. When a product is well built, the warranty is often a losing proposition for the buyer. Of course, if you have one of the few defective cars, then the warranty is a blessing. But given the higher quality of Detroit's vehicles, how much of the warranty price is actually absorbed by repair work?

The answer? Not much. The warranty is an overpriced insurance policy that is wildly profitable. But Detroit's labor & benefit costs are so high that even with a huge boost from warranty revenue, the companies cannot earn a profit.

Walmart is selling big flat-panel TVs. Why go to Walmart when you can get a better price on the same TV at Best Buy? Here it is: The Warranty. Walmart sells TVs for a little more than Best Buy. But it beats BB by a mile on the price of the warranty. Thus, the total price at Walmart is better than the total at Best Buy.

Maybe Walmart should get into the car dealership business. And maybe Toyota and Honda should teach Detroit how to make cars AND profits in the US.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Road to Perdition

Lawmakers skeptical as automakers again seek aid
Thursday December 4, 2008 -- Associated Press

Automakers plead with Congress for expanded $34B rescue package, but hear fresh skepticism

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Humbled U.S. automakers pleaded with Congress Thursday for an expanded $34 billion rescue package, but heard fresh skepticism in a bumpy encore appearance. "We made mistakes, which we're learning from," General Motors chief executive Rick Wagoner told the Senate Banking Committee.

Rick Wagoner says GM is learning from its mistakes. But the pace at which GM is learning is so slow it's time to put GM in Special Ed. When he speaks of learning, Rick Wagoner wants us to believe that he's referring to GM's operational mistakes and how Labor and Management fell into a mutually destructive relationship that has brought the company to the edge of collapse. But it's a lot more likely he's subtly referring to the company's approach to extracting money from taxpayers. He's now angry with himself for flying into D.C. on a company jet a couple of weeks ago, burning thousands of gallons of fuel hopping 500 miles from Detroit to D.C. to tell lawmakers the company hopes to build electric cars using no gas at all -- someday. And, as for profits, well, who knows? Someday, yeah, maybe the company will earn a buck. But it's way too soon to estimate when that will happen.

Meanwhile, Management may have lost touch with a lot of car buyers. But Labor has lost touch with reality. Ron Gettelfinger shows us how.

United Auto Worker union President Ron Gettelfinger warned bluntly that in the absence of action by Congress: "I believe we could lose General Motors by the end of this month." He said the situation was dire and that time was of the essence.

He speaks of GM as though it's a patient who is the victim of some disease curable only by actions taken by everyone except the patient. He speaks as though the cure is in the hands of taxpayers, including people who do not own cars or drive, and that those who possess the cure should, out of some moral sense, give freely to the ailing patient.

It has not occurred to Ron and the United Auto Workers that they are GM. That, individually and collectively, they are healthy. It is Ron and the union workers who possess the cure. They are the cure. They can administer it to themselves. They know what it is, but they do not want to admit they know. The truth is simple and painful. But if they admit they know, then they are also admitting they have ripped off car buyers for years, for decades.

How suicidal is their impulse? Will they stick to their delusional expectation of high wages and deluxe benefits long enough to see it all collapse? Or will Ron and the UAW membership awaken from their dream in time to save the industry and themselves from their own folly?

Several lawmakers in both parties, including Christopher Dodd of CT, have pressed the automakers in recent days to consider a so-called "pre-packaged" bankruptcy in which they would negotiate with creditors in advance and downsize, then file for Chapter 11 protection in hopes of emerging quickly as stronger companies. The Big Three have publicly shunned the notion, but executives have indicated in recent days that it might ultimately be necessary.

Gettelfinger told the committee, "We are prepared to do our part." But he also said workers for the auto companies shouldn't have to make disproportionate sacrifices.

Gettelfinger seems to have lost his mind. Is there any sense to his notion that the employees who are the essence of the auto industry are the people who should feel no pain? Of course they should sacrifice. And they should sacrifice disproportionately. It's their futures at stake. Not the future of the nation. Do they care about their futures? Or not? The only proof of caring they can offer is cutting their pay and benefits to the bone. If they are willing to cut enough, the Detroit car companies will survive. If not, the companies and the employees will pass through a chaotic period that will lead to a far more troubled downsizing. At this point, the outlook for Detroit is grim.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Detroit Mafia -- Driving the Getaway Car

Give us the money -- Or Else!! The Big Three Detroit Families have learned something mobsters have known for a long time. Threats work.

For the last few months, Detroit car executives have demanded money from taxpayers. Lots of it. But Americans have been reluctant to hand over the billions the leaders of the Three Families have sought. Even though the offers they have made have been refused, so far, the lack of cooperation has not discouraged the heads of the Three Detroit Families. Today, a leader from one of three realized it was time to deliver a big threat that might get action, finally. The Offer They Can't Refuse.

The executive from the Chysler family threatened to take down the whole US economy if the taxpayers refuse to cough up the money within weeks. Smash it, burn it down, wreck the joint. Or. All it will take to save the nation, he suggests, is $20 or $30 or $40 or $50 Billion. Or more, if those initial sums fail to restore the health of the Three Detroit Families. He was backed by an executive from the GM Family.

Chrysler exec: Failure could spark Depression

Chrysler exec warns of depression as auto officials intensify fierce lobbying push

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A top executive of Chrysler LLC cautioned Wednesday that a carmaker collapse could send the economy spiraling into a depression, as the United Auto Workers union braced for contract concessions.

Jim Press, Chrysler's vice chairman, said the U.S. automakers were "down to months left," as industry officials ratcheted up a fierce lobbying push to persuade Congress to approve as much as $34 billion in emergency aid.

"We're on the brink with the U.S. auto manufacturing industry," Press told The Associated Press in an interview. "If we have a catastrophic failure of one of these car companies, in this tender environment for the economy, it's a huge blow. It could trigger a depression."

Fritz Henderson, president and chief operating officer of General Motors Corp., took to the TV airwaves to stress that bankruptcy isn't a viable option on the eve of a new set of congressional hearings on the auto bailout. At the same time, UAW leaders were immersed in intense discussions on possible givebacks for the companies at an emergency meeting in Detroit.

Under consideration were the possibility of scrapping a much-maligned jobs bank in which laid-off workers keep receiving most of their pay and postponing the automakers' payments into a multibillion-dollar union-administered health care fund.

In blueprints delivered to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, GM and Chrysler said they needed an immediate infusion of government cash to last until New Year's, and both said they could drag the entire industry down if they fail. Ford is requesting a $9 billion "standby line of credit" that it says it doesn't expect to use unless one of the other Big Three goes belly up.

But Chrysler said it needed $7 billion by year's end just to keep running. And GM asked for an immediate $4 billion as the first installment of a $12 billion loan, plus a $6 billion line of credit it might need if economic conditions worsen. The two painted the direst portraits to date -- including the prospects of shuttered factories and massive job losses -- of what could happen if Congress doesn't quickly step in.

All three plans envision the government getting a stake in the auto companies that would allow taxpayers to share in future gains if they recover.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

GM Board might go Chapter 11 over Wagoner's Objection

Rick Wagoner thinks consumers will avoid cars made by a company in bankruptcy. That's an interesting and amusing thought. It seems he has ignored the fact that for GM to remain solvent it must sell cars to people who are bankrupt, or close to it.

The biggest impediment to cars sales is credit. Buyers have none. As car dealers have acknowledged, a year or two ago, people with low credit scores were big buyers of Big Three vehicles. Today, people with similar credit scores are denied car loans.

Therefore, the de facto bankruptcy of buyers is kicking in. That means giving money to Detroit changes nothing. Except giving money to Detroit means more unsold cars will pile up somewhere. When the number of unsold vehicles begins to overflow the lots on which they sit, the only possible method of moving them is through massive price cuts. Car prices will drop like the price of GM stock in 2008.

Anyway, which is worse? The downsizing of Detroit through a pre-packaged government-assisted Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing? Or the downsizing of Detroit through the de facto bankruptcy of car buyers?

Build them and they will come? Not exactly. Inventories have already climbed to troubling levels. If Detroit is given taxpayer money to build more cars, unsold inventories will punish the industry even more. If cars are moved off lots due to huge price cuts, then losses will soar higher than ever.

If taxpayer money is used to pay auto-workers to stay at home, well, then, why not declare a national work holiday for everyone. If auto-workers can enjoy full pay while the economy slumps and the auto industry faces a substantial contraction, why not extend the same generosity to everyone?

GM, Its Board Race to Craft a Convincing Viability Plan

General Motors Corp. management on Sunday was racing to finalize a viability plan to take to Congress, with a boardroom hellbent on securing a federal rescue loan.

At the same time, directors -- unlike chief executive Rick Wagoner -- are also insisting that all options stay on the table, including a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, if a bailout doesn't come through.

The auto maker, along with Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, is working to win $25 billion in loans needed to keep the Detroit Three afloat amid soft demand and a credit freeze. Last month, the companies were turned away by Congress, which told them to come back this week with proof that federal funds wouldn't be wasted on a failing business plan.

Dwindling liquidity is forcing GM to weigh several options for its business, including an offer to some bondholders asking them to exchange debt for equity.

Executives are also once again considering killing or selling brands, and cutting even more North American production capacity. GM's plan could become known as early as Tuesday in public filings.

"Everything is on the table," according to one person familiar with the board's thinking. Following Mr. Wagoner's poor performance in Washington last month, the board began meeting more and taking more seriously its obligation to investigate other options.

Mr. Wagoner has said that a filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection isn't a viable option, insisting the auto maker would collapse because consumers won't buy from a car from a company in bankruptcy and obtaining financing would be nearly impossible.

Although members of the GM board agree with Mr. Wagoner's concerns about revenue while in bankruptcy, directors have said they will consider all options as they become necessary.

At this point, it is unclear if the 14-member board has time to execute a prepackaged bankruptcy before GM runs out of cash. Such a process would include getting unions, suppliers, creditors and other parties to agree to concessions first. Then, the company may be able to get through the process in matter of a few months, experts say.

On Tuesday, the day the plans are due, the entire U.S. auto industry will report November vehicle sales that are expected to represent the lowest sales pace in several decades.

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UAW President Ron Gettelfinger = Roadblock

It is sad and depressing that Ron Gettelfinger believes the American public owes something to the UAW workers who make cars for the Big Three. Perhaps UAW members deserve sympathy for the straits in which they have found themselves. But financial support from taxpayers? Not a chance.

How did we get here? Through the combined efforts of Management and Labor. The two combatants in the auto industry have been going at it since 1935. Unfortunately, the UAW and its leadership have never fully grasped the notion of foreign competition. It seems the Union has fooled itself into thinking that its only goal was to extract as much as possible from management. The UAW seems to have ignored or denied the impact of its efforts on the auto market itself.

Why have the Big Three lost market share? Many reasons. But changing consumer tastes head the list. Thus, Detroit's problem boils down to intertia. It can't move fast enough to meet the demands of consumers. Sure, Detroit makes some popular vehicles. It makes enough of them to stay in the lead. But the lead continues to shrink and Detroit's losses are growing.

What has slowed Detroit's capacity for change? Union wages & benefits; Government mileage standards; laws relating to dealerships; insufficient foresight in Top Management.

Ron Gettelfinger has pointed the finger at Management for his entire career as UAW President. Okay. And now he's in a position to do something about it. But, he won't. Why? Because he's a moron.

If Ron Gettelfinger and the UAW believe management has been an impediment to the health of the domestic auto industry and the UAW, then it's up to the union members to do something about it. Now they can. They can buy General Motors -- for a song.

A couple of weeks ago General Motors stock was trading around $3 a share. There are six-hundred million GM shares. Hence, the UAW could have bought the company for $1.8 billion. Easily affordable. Of course no move to buy the company was made. Why? Because a Chapter 11 bankruptcy would wipe out their stock-market investment, as bankruptcy filings always do.

Recent panhandling in Washington by the CEOs of the Big Three injected some hope into auto company stock prices. General Motors stock is now about $5 a share, pushing the buyout price to $3 billion.

Gettelfinger seems ignorant of all aspects of finance and economics. He clearly knows nothing about the value of buying the debt of General Motors.

If the UAW were to buy the debt of General Motors, it would have the power to cancel it. At its current prices, GM debt is as much a bargain as its stock -- for the right buyers. GM's debt totals $45 billion. As a result of the company's vast problems and subsequent reductions of its credit ratings to junk status, the debt is selling for a fraction of its face value.

He who owns the debt controls the company. Thus, the UAW, if it wants to make the smart move, can buy GM stock as well as its debt. If the Union buys the debt with the aim of extinguishing it, the stock will rise. If it takes a more moderate path of exchanging the old debt for new debt or equity, the company will get extra breating room.

Bottom line: The Union can own the company. That means full control of the company the UAW claims has been mismanaged by Rick Wagoner and his predecessors. The Union can then negotiate with itself on all issues that continue to put profits out of reach. Seems simple enough. For a small investment the UAW can eliminate the segment of the company that UAW members blame for the problems. What are they waiting for?

GM board reviews new turnaround plan for bailout
Sun Nov 30, 2008 6:32pm EST

DETROIT (Reuters) - The board of General Motors Corp met on Sunday to review a restructuring plan intended to cut costs and win support for up to $12 billion in emergency funding from the U.S. government, a person familiar with the deliberations said.

The GM board meeting came on the same day that United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger signaled his union was prepared to offer further concessions in order to win support for the bailout provided management shared in the sacrifice.

"They need to establish that executive compensation is something that they're willing to curtail," Gettelfinger said in an interview on CNN. "They can also give the government an equity stake in the business.

House and Senate Democratic leaders, in a letter to GM, Ford and Chrysler executives, said the companies demanded that each submit a "credible restructuring plan" by Tuesday.

That is the same day that major automakers are expected to report bleak November sales results that show an only limited bounce from October when the consumer uncertainty and tight credit combined to send sales to 25-year lows.


November sales are expected to show the auto industry running at a U.S. sales rate of about 11 million vehicles on an annual basis, down by almost a third from 2007's tally.

Analysts see a chance for GM to stop burning cash if the industry recovers back above a sales rate of about 13 million vehicles and it succeeds with a stepped-up restructuring backed by federal funding in a deal that would involve steep concessions from creditors, executives and the UAW.

The union is under pressure to surrender protections that allow laid-off factory workers at the Detroit automakers to collect over 90 percent of their pay by shifting to a jobs bank. The union agreed to restrictions on the program

A potentially more important concession would be winning new terms for payments by GM and other automakers into a $48 billion trust fund scheduled to take over funding health care benefits for retired autoworkers from 2010.

The revised plan GM is set to submit to Congress is also expected to show cuts to executive pay. The automaker paid its top executives more than $40 million in 2007, even as its stock dropped 19 percent and it posted a loss of $39 billion.

In addition, the GM plan is expected to indicate that the company will ask some bond holders to accept equity and a limited cash payout to redeem the debt they hold.

That proposed debt swap is seen as crucial because GM has more than $44 billion in debt on its balance sheet, analysts have said.

The automaker burned through $6.9 billion in the past quarter and ended September with $16.2 billion. It needs a minimum of between $11 billion and $14 billion to operate and pay suppliers and has warned it could fall short of cash early next year without government help.

The revised plans from all three Detroit automakers are expected to focus on their investment in fuel-saving technology and alternatives like GM's battery-powered Chevrolet Volt.

Analysts expect the automakers to detail confidential product plans that show they have a game plan for meeting federal requirements for a 40-percent improvement in fleet-wide average fuel economy to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

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