During the Texas oil bust of the 1980s, a major real estate developer told me, "I thought I was in the real estate business, only to discover I was really in the oil business." His comment was made as the collapse in the price of a barrel of oil inflicted massive collateral damage on all segments of the Texas economy. Similarly, the executives running the world's major automobile companies, including those based in Detroit, have learned that they were actually in the subprime mortgage, credit default swaps and financial derivatives business. Decisions made on Wall Street drove a stake into the heart of GM, once one of the mightiest industrial enterprises in the world.
In previous posts I have commented on the strategic miscalculations and erroneous management decisions made by General Motors and its domestic competitors as contributing factors towards their imminent demise. However, it is the Global Economic Crisis, driven by financial chicanery engineered largely on Wall Street, that is sending GM, Chrysler and possibly Ford to a rendezvous with the undertaker. While U.S. politicians, who have shoveled trillions of taxpayer dollars into the hands of reckless Wall Street firms and banks with virtually no strings attached, enjoy lambasting Detroit and the auto unions for their supposed misdeeds, a recent statistic adds ambiguity to this generalization. In April, Toyota --considered to be the best run auto company in the world -- actually had a sharper drop in U.S. auto sales than GM, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
In desperation, GM has announced it will dump 1,600 domestic dealerships in the short-term, and ultimately eliminate 2,600, reducing its total dealership franchises by more than 40%. This is only part of an array of measures designed to reduce operating costs. More auto assembly plants will be shut down; additional layoffs will be undertaken while remaining employees will see their wages and benefits shrink further. However, in the wake of the financial storm that is wrecking the global economy, these last ditch and desperate stratagems are almost certainly doomed to failure. In the next several weeks, GM will file for bankruptcy protection, shed several of its brands, and accelerate the death spiral that it is now locked in. With unemployment surging, not only in the United States but throughout the world where GM has significant market share, and credit essential for auto purchases being denied to consumers -- macroeconomic factors that are far more relevant to the auto industry than brand elimination and dealership disposal -- the extinction of General Motors as an industrial corporation seems all but certain. Possibly brands such as Cadillac or Chevrolet may survive independently or be absorbed by other auto manufacturers, but the behemoth known as GM is destined for the scrapyard of history.
While Teddy Roosevelt was completing his second term as U.S. president in 1908, the first GM automobile was manufactured. In 1954, General Motors saw its 50 millionth car roll off the Detroit assembly lines, at a time when more than half a million Americans worked for GM. Now, at death's door, GM has announced that its dwindling workforce will shrink by a further 38%, reaching a planned level of 38,000. That represents a reduction of 93% from the 1954 employment figures!
The financial and political elites who dominate policymaking in America seem unperturbed. They apparently prefer having companies exist that engineer exotic financial derivatives than a manufactured product that is assembled by a skilled, well-compensated workforce. In their alternative universe, GM is expendable while AIG is "too big to fail." However, even with this melancholy certainty in front of us, I will always imagine a ride in a 1957 Chevrolet convertible as being infinitely more romantic than cruising the lanes on foot with a pocketful of securitized subprime mortgages or credit default swaps. So, America, where does the economic road ahead lead us?
Rest in peace, General Motors.