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White House Wants Auto Bailout by Christmas: Report

The White House and the Treasury are deep into negotiations with General Motors and Chrysler over reorganization plans that could result in freeing up more than $14 billion in emergency loans to keep the companies afloat through the first quarter of 2009, according to industry executives and a senior administration official.

The Bush administration appears to want an agreement with the automakers before Dec. 25. It was unclear, however, when all of the particulars might be worked out, said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the negotiations.

But the official indicated that the administration was inclined to do more than just keep G.M. and Chrysler alive until President-elect Barack Obama takes office, saying, “Giving them enough money to limp along doesn’t solve anything.”

In the negotiations, the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., is effectively taking on the role of “auto czar,” which was envisioned in the carmakers rescue bill written by the White House and Congressional Democrats and approved by the House but blocked by Senate Republicans.

Bailout Decision
CNBC.com
Bailout Decision

In the days since the White House said it would step in to prevent the collapse of G.M. and Chrysler, Treasury officials have been poring over detailed financial data in a meticulous exercise that one G.M. executive likened to “putting on the aqualung” and diving deep into the companies’ books.

G.M. officials said that the company’s chief financial officer, Ray Young, and a team of aides had provided the Treasury with a vast sheaf of documents including supplier contracts and payment schedules, production plans, employee payrolls, debt obligations, interest payments and even utility bills.

The negotiations continued on Wednesday even as Chrysler announced that it would idle all of its factories for a month or more, extending an annual holiday shutdown that normally lasts about two weeks. Chrysler’s finance arm also warned dealers on Wednesday that a shortage of cash might force it to stop making loans temporarily that many dealers rely on to buy inventory for their lots.

G.M. had already announced extensive idling of its plants in Canada and the United States during the first quarter. Other automakers, including Honda and Ford , have announced cutbacks in production as the entire industry copes with plummeting demand for vehicles in the deepening recession.

In an interview on Wednesday on CNBC, Mr. Paulson said the auto bailout talks were now his primary focus, but he declined to say if the money promised by the White House would be disbursed before Christmas. “The autos will get the money as quickly as we can prudently do it,” he said.

G.M. has said that it desperately needs $4 billion to survive through the end of this month and that $10 billion could carry the company through March 31, the end of the first quarter of 2009. Chrysler has said that $4 billion would allow it to avoid bankruptcy and stay in business through the quarter.

The auto companies have said they expect the terms of the emergency government assistance to match roughly the requirements in the legislation approved by the House, which would force them to submit to strict oversight and impose numerous taxpayer protections.

That bill also would have forced the companies to carry out drastic reorganization plans, slashing jobs, closing factories and consolidating product lines as they sought to restore profitability, and it would have required the companies to have a clear plan to achieve a positive cash flow in the future.

But officials said that providing aid to the automakers using the Treasury’s $700 billion financial stabilization program was substantially more complicated without legislation tailored specifically to the automobile industry. White House officials blamed Congress for the delay in speeding funds to the companies.

“Because of the failure by Congress, we’re left with suboptimal options,” said Tony Fratto, the deputy White House press secretary. Cautioning that no decisions had been completed, Mr. Fratto added, “We’ll do what is in the best interests of taxpayers and the national economy.”

In addition to the emergency loan package, officials are working with the finance arms of G.M. and Chrysler to convert them into government-regulated financial institutions, a designation that could make them eligible for separate loans from the Federal Reserve.

The Senate vote last week, in which Republicans blocked the auto bailout legislation, capped a month of public drama over fears that at least two of Detroit’s Big Three were in imminent danger of collapse, including two rounds of contentious hearings with the auto chiefs on Capitol Hill.

In recent days, however, administration officials and company executives have sequestered themselves, offering only the slightest hints of what they are discussing, as market analysts speculate about how long G.M. and Chrysler can survive without a government lifeline.

Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to President Bush, told Fox News on Wednesday that an announcement on aid was not necessarily imminent. “There will be a decision obviously by the end of the year,” he said. President Bush in a separate interview said he would make a decision “relatively soon.”

And Mr. Bush reiterated that his greatest concern is the possibility of a “disorganized bankruptcy or disorderly bankruptcy.” The White House press secretary, Dana Perino, has made that point repeatedly, but it is unclear if the administration would consider some sort of prepackaged bankruptcy for one or both of the companies.

Legal experts said, however, that speculation was growing that the White House and the Treasury were exploring that idea, which would be unusual. It would require the advance cooperation of the autoworkers, bondholders, suppliers, dealers and other stakeholders, who would all have to agree to concessions.

The private-sector financing for such a package would total about $25 billion for both companies, legal experts said, with the Treasury providing a guarantee by adding about $5 billion from the financial rescue fund.

—Micheline Maynard contributed reporting from Detroit.

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