Freedomnomics

Article published Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at National Review Online.

Obama and GM Cook the Books

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Would you hire President Obama as your financial adviser? Three years ago his administration invested more than $100 billion in taxpayer money to bail out General Motors. On Tuesday, the entire company, not just what the government owns, was worth less than $34 billion. By anyone’s definition, that investment is a glaring failure. Yet over the last few days the Obama campaign, in a $25 million marketing blitz, has flooded the airwaves with ads in battleground states, claiming the bailout should be counted a rousing success.

Unfortunately, assertions that “all loans have been repaid to the federal government,” that the bailout “saved more than one million American jobs,” that “U.S. automakers are hiring hundreds of thousands of new workers,” that GM is again the “number-one automaker” — all are based on creative accounting.

The money the government spent adds up quickly: $50 billion in TARP bailout funds, a special exemption waiving payment of $45.4 billion in taxes on future profits, an exemption for all product liability on cars sold before the bailout, $360 million in stimulus funds, and the $7,500 tax credit for those who buy the Chevy Volt. GM’s share of other programs is harder to quantify but includes, for example, some of the $15.2 billion that went to Cash for Clunkers. Those costs are in addition to the billions taken from GM’s bondholders by the Obama administration.

A look at the accounting shows the trouble with contentions that much of the TARP money is getting paid back. The Obama administration compares the $50 billion in direct bailout funds with the price it will eventually be able to get for selling the GM stock it owns. But that assumes that the stock price won’t reflect government subsidies, including GM’s exemption from paying $45 billion in taxes. By the Obama administration’s logic, if the stimulus grants to TARP recipients were simply large enough, all the TARP money could be paid.

Claims that GM paid back its TARP loan are true but misleading. President Obama clearly wants to create the impression that all the money given to the auto companies has been paid back. But the $6.7 billion loan to GM was just a tiny fraction of the money given to it. As TARP special inspector general Neil Barofsky explained, GM used “other TARP money” to pay off the loan.

So what about President Obama’s boast in a White House speech in late April that the bailout “saved probably a million jobs” and that “GM is now the number-one automaker again in the world”?

The “million jobs” contention is quite a stretch. Before filing for bankruptcy in July 2009, GM had 91,000 employees in the United States. You can reach a 400,000 total by assuming that all of GM’s jobs, as well as all the jobs of its parts suppliers and car dealers, would have been lost. Last year, employment in the entire automotive industry in the U.S. (counting Ford, Toyota, and other companies and their suppliers, in addition to GM and Chrysler) was only 717,000.

Obama’s economic advisers told him during an April 2009 meeting that job losses in the auto industry would be only a fraction — 10 to 20 percent — of these claimed numbers, even for the much weaker Chrysler. The advisers reported the obvious: Bankruptcy would not kill all jobs at GM and, even with cutbacks, suppliers would pick up other work. But Obama keeps using numbers that his own advisers told him were wrong.

Even saving 20 percent of 400,000 comes at quite a cost — at least $780,000 per job. How many workers would have been willing to quit working for GM for a $400,000 severance payment?

The “number-one automaker” assertion is no more accurate. Obama’s sales totalsblitz include 1.2 million mostly cheap commercial vehicles built by China’s Wuling, a company in which GM owns a small stake, and it excludes sales by vehicle makers in which Volkswagen owns a majority share. Fortune magazine lists GM’s revenue as smaller than Toyota’s and Volkswagen’s.

The only real winners from the GM bailout were unions, which were protected from pay cuts, from losing their right to overtime pay after less than 40 hours a week, and from cuts to their extremely generous benefits. They faced only minor tweaks in their inefficient union work rules.

As for “hundreds of thousands of new workers,” the truth is closer to a tenth of that.

Having just $34 billion to show after a $100 billion-plus investment would get a chief executive of any private company fired. Unfortunately, Obama does not seem to understand how this money has been wasted.

John R. Lott Jr. is a FOXNews.com contributor. He is an economist and co-author of "Debacle: Obama's War on Jobs and Growth and What We Can Do Now to Regain Our Future.".

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