Sunday, October 10, 2010

Steve Rattner's "Overhaul"

When I first heard that Steve Rattner was writing an "insider's account" of his time as the Obama administration's Car Czar, my first thought was, "Wow, I'm surprised Rattner would be so disloyal." After reading the book, my view has moderated a little — I think Rattner gave an honest and accurate account, and everyone involved was treated quite fairly. I doubt Rattner views himself as disloyal at all for writing the book. But at the end of the day, it was still disloyal — it doesn't matter how fairly you portray people; writing a tell-all is something you just don't do. People need to be able to talk to you without having to worry about whether their words are going to end up in your book. For Rattner to turn around and reveal who said what behind closed doors — even if what they said isn't damaging — is disloyal. (Also, while Rattner portrays most administration officials positively overall, he absolutely savages Sheila Bair, who he describes as "a sharp-elbowed, sometimes disingenuous self-promoter.")

That said, the book itself is a great read. Two things really stuck out for me. First, it's scary how understaffed the Auto Task Force was. They had an enormously important job, and their decisions were going to affect hundreds of thousands of families. And yet the entire Auto Task Force consisted of 14 people, most of whom were extremely young. If the government is going to effectively restructure the domestic auto industry, you'd hope that they'd hire enough people — preferably with a good deal of experience in the field — to do the job right. Don't get me wrong, Harry Wilson is legit, and so is Matt Feldman (and, for that matter, so is Ron Bloom); but there were basically 4 people tasked with restructuring GM, one of the largest companies in the US. That's frankly dangerous.

Second, at several points, the Auto Task Force seemed to discover major problems way after they should have. For example, after they had decided to rescue Chrysler — based on the premise that they could, and most likely would, put Chrysler through bankruptcy — they discovered that bankruptcy might kinda-sorta pose a problem for Chrysler's "finco," Chrysler Financial. This is Rattner describing a meeting with the heads of the fincos (GM's finco is GMAC), which provide necessary consumer and dealer floorplan loans for the auto companies:

As I sat listening to our visitors, I was seized by the enormity of the finco problem. Chrysler Financial was the immediate headache.
...
Then we learned, to my horrow, that putting Chrysler into any form of bankruptcy would have severe consequences for Chrysler Financial. A very large proportion of its remaining bank credit lines would immediately be withdrawn. In order to keep Chrysler Financial in business, we might have to replace all of its $22 billion of borrowing facilities with taxpayer money. But there was more: we would face very much the same problem with GMAC, which was six times larger than Chrysler Financial.
You're discovering this after you made the decision to rescue Chrysler, and most likely put it through bankruptcy? Yikes. The idea that you would make such a huge decision without fully understanding the role of, or implications for, the fincos, is a little scary. However, I don't entirely blame the Auto Task Force for this. They were given an impossibly short timeline, and like I said before, they weren't given nearly enough people. And it all worked out in the end, largely because the Auto Task Force had some extremely intelligent and capable people who were able to put out these kinds of fires. (The solution to the finco problem was to have GMAC take over Chrysler Financial's post-petition and post-bankruptcy lending, and let Chrysler Financial go into run-off mode.)

So ultimately, my conclusion after reading the book is that the Auto Task Force did an excellent job under impossible circumstances. However, they also got a little lucky, in that they were ultimately able to overcome the clear mistakes they had made.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

i'm guessing you were not a chrysler bondholder...

Economics of Contempt said...

No, I was not a Chrysler bondholder.

David Ruggles said...

The bondholders holdings were valueless anyway. What's the big deal?

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