Monday, July 7, 2008

General Motors: Farwell and Adieu?

The news that General Motors stock hit a 54 year low last week shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anyone who has been following the company for a while. GM is hemorrhaging money so fast that it will need to raise $15 billion to cover their operating expenses over the next two years. They are now facing the very real possibility of bankruptcy. As a result, GM is now considering laying off thousands of white collar workers and selling off some of their brands.

GM’s problems aren’t new and are only partially related to the current high price of gasoline. Their problems go back several decades, when they started to let their dominance of the U.S. auto market slip away to the Japanese and then the Koreans. GM has lost over half of its market share over the last four decades. It’s now at 20%.

General Motors has had some of the most brain-dead management in the industry, starting with Roger Smith who fostered the worst labor relationships in Detroit. At one point their relationship with labor was so bad that GM's UAW leadership were indistinguishable from suicide terrorists, determined to punish the company even if it meant killing themselves in the process.

GM also suffered from three decades of poor, uninspiring design, where for a while most of their cars pretty much looked like a wedge of cheese.

Like all U.S. auto companies, it took GM too long to figure out that producing qualitiy cars actually cost less, not more, and results in higher customer satisfaction and stronger brand loyalty.

They were also completely clueless on how to compete in international markets. For example, they used to constantly whine about how Japan was unfairly closed to them. When I went to Japan for the first time in 1998, I noticed three things: A.) The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, like the British, B.) there were a lot of German cars on the road, and C.) there were very few American cars. The problem was that the U.S. auto companies took forever to sell cars that were suitable for the Japanese market (i.e., with the steering wheel on the right side). The complete misunderstanding of the market, along with their chronic quality problems doomed GM, Ford, and Chrysler in Japan.

They also have a maddening plethora of largely indistinguishable brands including Chevrolet, GMC, Pontiac, Saturn, Cadillac, and Buick. Let’s not forget about Oldsmobile, which GM shut down a few years ago. Yes, they also have Saab and Hummer, but these are niche brands which are also not doing well.

Finally, years of overly generous pension arrangements have spun GM’s costs out of control. The cost of supporting GM retirees is more than $1,600 per car.

Shutting down a brand is a costly proposition, in part due to state franchise laws. In 2001, GM spent $1 billion to buy out Olds dealers and close some plants. Litigation with dealers dragged on for years and the final cost of shutting downs Olds is estimated to be $2 billion.

Throttling back on production isn’t an easy answer either, given GM’s union agreements which stipulate that they can’t close a plant or lay off workers without stiff penalties no matter how bad the losses become. Plants must run at 80% capacity or more whether they make money or not. Even if it stops its assembly lines, GM must still pay laid-off workers and also foot their extraordinarily generous health-care and pension costs.

So, what’s the answer? I for one can’t think of any reason why General Motors as a single entity makes sense any longer, because they just don't seem to be able to get out from under their own history. They have proven to be too big, old, and stodgy to undertake any serious reform. The only real answer may be to break the company up and let the market reallocate the resources to more productive uses.

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