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As General Motors Goes, So Goes the Nation

Companies / US Auto's Feb 26, 2009 - 07:55 AM GMT

By: James_Quinn

Companies Diamond Rated - Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleGeneral Motors was founded in 1908 in Flint , Michigan and grew to be the largest corporation in the world. Its market capitalization reached $50 billion in 2000. In the past week its market capitalization dropped below $1 billion to levels last seen during the 1920's. The story of General Motors is the story of America . In 1953, at the peak of its dominance, its President Charles Wilson declared before Congress that what was good for the country was good for GM and vice versa. Its rise to power and decline towards insolvency parallel the rise and fall of the Great American Republic.

Overconfidence, hubris, lack of courage, foolish decisions made, and crucial decisions deferred have been the hallmarks of GM and U.S. GM's stock price reached at $1.77 last week, a 71 year low. It peaked at $100 during the Dot Com boom in 2000 and was still at $50 in 2007. The market has voted and it says GM is bankrupt.

American carmakers have seen their market share drop from 85% in 1985 to 43% today. GM's market share peaked at almost 50% in the 1960's. It reached a historic low of 19.5% in January. Their sales plummeted 49% from a year ago. GM has too much debt, too much bureaucracy, too many plants, too many car lines, too many employees, and too many future healthcare and pension obligations. Of course, the only way a company can be in such a disastrous position is through decades of mismanagement. The only logical solution is for GM to enter a pre-packaged bankruptcy with financing provided by the U.S. government if bank financing is unavailable. Shareholders and bondholders will be wiped out. They made a bad investment. Plants will be closed, UAW contracts restructured, management replaced, employees fired, debt written off and future obligations reduced. A much smaller viable company that can compete in the 21 st Century would exit bankruptcy in a year or two. A profitable, low market share is preferable to a high market share with billions in loses.

Source: Automotive Data Center & R.L. Polk

The decline of GM is a testament to how poor strategic decisions over the course of decades will ultimately lead to collapse. The United States has followed the GM model of failure for the last three decades. The U.S. has too much debt, too much bureaucracy, too many government supported industries, too many agencies, too many employees, and $53 trillion of unfunded future liabilities. See any similarities to GM? Can the U.S. avoid the fate of GM, or is it too late? If we can learn the important lessons of the GM decline, it may not be too late to reverse our course. Or we can continue on the current path and follow the advice of Will Rogers.

“If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?”

Meteoric Rise

By the early 1920s, General Motors had surpassed Ford Motor Company as the largest car company in the U.S. under the leadership of Alfred P. Sloan. He created the concept of annual styling changes that kept consumers coming back. He also established a pricing structure for each of GM's brands from lowest to highest (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac). The idea was to keep a family coming back to GM over time as they become wealthier. He was a pioneer who drove GM to become the largest and most profitable industrial enterprise the world had ever known. His words reflect that spirit.

“There has to be this pioneer, the individual who has the courage, the ambition to overcome the obstacles that always develop when one tries to do something worthwhile, especially when it is new and different.”

In the midst of the Great Depression, Mr. Sloan was able to keep General Motors profitable. That is an indication of a smart, realistic businessman who didn't make poor decisions during the Roaring 20s. GM's results during the heart of the Depression, when one-third of all dealers went broke, according to Automotive Daily News were:

1929 Net sales - $1,504,404,472 Net income - $248,282,268

1930 Net sales - $983,375,137 Net income - $151,098,992

1931 Net sales - $808,840,723 Net income - $96,877,107

1932 Net sales - $432,311,868 Net income - $164,979

By 1936, GM managed to increase car sales to 1.7 million and to 2 million by 1941, before converting operations to military requirements. Only an executive like Sloan comfortable in his own skin and tolerant of other opinions would speak the following words.

“If we are all in agreement on the decision - then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

The best business decisions are made after open debate that includes dissenting opinions and arguments. Only great leaders allow this type of decision making. Alfred Sloan led GM for over 30 years, retiring in 1956. GM's profit in 1955 had reached $1.2 billion ($8 billion in today's dollars). It was on top of the world.

On Top of the World

During World War II General Motors produced armaments, tanks, vehicles, and aircraft to help the Allies to victory. During the 1950s, GM became the largest corporation in America and became the 1 st company to pay taxes over $1 billion in a single year. In 1955, GM employed 624,000 Americans. In the copy of the 1955 GM Annual report below, it shows that only 27 cents of every dollar of revenue was paid to employees. The GM business model was very profitable. Their market share peaked at 54% in 1954, the same year they sold their 50 millionth automobile. After the retirement of Sloan, a visionary leader failed to materialize. GM began to show signs of overconfidence as the 1960s arrived. They started to believe their own press clippings. They failed to heed the advice of another well known auto man Lee Iacocca.

“The most successful businessman is the man who holds onto the old just as long as it is good, and grabs the new just as soon as it is better.”

Peter Drucker, the world renowned management guru, wrote a detailed analysis of General Motors in 1946 called Concept of the Corporation . His suggestions to management and the UAW were scoffed at by both parties. He suggested the automaker might want to reexamine a host of long-standing policies on customer relations, dealer relations, and employee relations. Among his specific recommendations was for GM's hourly workers to assume more direct responsibility for what they did, adopting a "managerial aptitude" and operating within a "self-governing plant community." The UAW's powerful president, Walter Reuther, greeted that notion this way: "Managers manage and workers work, and to demand of workers that they take responsibility for what is management's job imposes an intolerable burden on the working man." Reuthner did not fall into the “visionary” category.

Glory Days

As the 1960s began GM began decades of reacting to competitors rather than showing the way. As the European car makers introduced smaller cars, GM introduced the Chevrolet Corvair. This car later was attacked by Ralph Nader, who wrote book Unsafe at Any Speed , which led to congressional auto safety hearings. Speed took precedence over safety. GM continued to maintain its worldwide dominance through the 1960s into the 1980s. New car controversy plagued the company during these decades. Every decade, a major new product line was launched with defects of one type or another showing up early in their life cycle. In every case improvements were eventually made to fix the problems, but the resulting improved product ended up failing in the marketplace as its negative reputation overshadowed its eventual quality. Again, Lee Iacocca's wisdom went unheeded at GM.

“In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product, and profits.”

Renaissance Center – GM Headquarters

GM forgot that superior products developed by superior people lead to profits. The 1970's were marked by more disastrous product launches. Who could forget the Vega? Quality was not job one for GM. The last major strike by the UAW also occurred in 1970. After that, management continually gave in to the union demands in all future contract negotiations. They promised tremendous pension benefits, lifetime healthcare benefits, huge pay increases, and onerous work rules that gave management no flexibility. GM evidently didn't have any bean counters who could extrapolate past a five year horizon. If they had, they would have seen that they would eventually have an unsustainable cost structure with more retirees being paid than workers on the assembly line. The troubling facts were ignored because GM still had a 45% market share during the 1970's. GM's U.S. employment reached 618,365 in 1979, making it the largest private employer in the country. Worldwide employment broached 853,000. It has been downhill ever since.

In 1983, in an epilogue to 1946's Concept of the Corporation , Peter Drucker wrote: "GM may, within a decade, develop into a true transnational company that integrates markets of the developed world and their purchasing power with the labor resources of the Third World ." And while it is much too early even to guess what GM's labor relations will look like," he added, "the assembly line, that symbol of industry during the first half of the century, will, by the year 1990 or the year 2000, probably have faded into history." Mr. Drucker underestimated the lack of vision and foresight of GM management. They continued to follow the old ways until it was too late. Japanese carmakers arrived like a freight train during the 1980s and have never let up. GM has essentially been in a death spiral for the last 30 years. Throughout the 1980s, GM rolled out more duds like the Chevrolet Citation, Chevrolet Cavalier, and Pontiac Sunfire.

Bruce Springsteen touched on the future of the U.S. auto industry in his classic Glory Days .

My old man worked 20 years on the line
And they let him go
Now everywhere he goes out looking for work
They just tell him that he's too old
I was 9 nine years old and he was working at the
Metuchen Ford plant assembly line
Now he just sits on a stool down at the legion hall
But i can tell what's on his mind

Glory days yeah goin back
Glory days aw he ain't never had
Glory days, glory days

Decline of an Empire

Roger Smith ran GM from 1981 until 1990. During his reign, GM's market share dropped from 46% to 35%. His biggest claim to fame is being the subject of Michael Moore's first documentary Roger & Me, which was extremely critical of his laying off of thousands of employees in Flint , Michigan . He took over GM in 1981 while it was losing $750 million, its 1 st loss in 60 years. Poor product quality, labor unrest and lawsuits over unsafe vehicle designs affected sales volumes in the early 1980's, which led to GM losing market share at an alarming rate to foreign automakers. In 1981, U.S. Union autoworkers responded to the Japanese threat by bashing Japanese automobiles with sledgehammers. I'm sure this made them feel better, but it was a futile and useless gesture. Smith attempted to institute Japanese manufacturing techniques, but the ingrained bureaucracy resisted change and foiled his efforts. A culture of mediocrity and poor quality led to continuous decline rather than continuous improvement. The acquisition of EDS from Ross Perot in 1984 was a failure. Perot attempted to change the culture of GM, but failed. Perot liked to say that getting GM moving again was like teaching an elephant to dance.

General Motors had a chance to take a commanding lead in the mid 1990's. They developed the 1 st electric car the EV1 in 1996. Instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to change the automotive world, GM scrapped this car and destroyed all of the models. They decided the future was in trucks, SUVs, and Hummers. They continued to roll over to the unions every time a contract came up for renegotiation. This ultimately led to an average hourly labor cost of $73.26 for GM by 2006, a 65% premium to what the Japanese pay their autoworkers.

GM sold its soul to the devil of debt and high margin, low mileage vehicles. SUVs generated a profit of $10,000 to $15,000 per vehicle, even with GM's bloated cost structure. Rather than improve their assembly line efficiency, product design & quality, or solidify their balance sheet, they chose to use their GMAC subsidiary to make loans to subprime borrowers at 120% of the car's value. After 9/11, GM showed their dedication to the flag by giving cars away with 0% financing. Amazingly, when you provide 0% financing to people with 550 credit scores you can sell millions of Escalades and Hummers. While Rome was burning GM management continued to fiddle. There hundreds of Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Directors continued to fly around in their fleet of 7 corporate jets. As Rick Wagoner and his top cronies secluded themselves in executive suites on the 14 th floor of their palatial headquarters, eating steak and lobster in their executive dining room, served by minions, GM was rotting from within.


Giving away cars for free was so successful, GM decided to parlay their expertise into giving homes away for free. They bought Ditech in 1999, just in time to catch the greatest housing bubble of all time. Ditech was a pioneer in offering 125 percent loans, in which the borrower could get more than the property was worth. It specialized in no-documentation mortgages and stated income loans. How could lending someone 125% of a home's value with no proof of income or assets possibly go wrong? To quote Claude Rains from Casablanca , “ I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” GMAC surprisingly lost $8 billion in the last two years. Luckily, the American taxpayer has stepped in to provide GMAC with $5 billion of TARP so they can continue to allow GM to sell more cars at a $2,000 loss per car. No need to worry, they've hired some Wall Street wizards from Citicorp who have figured out that they can make it up on volume. Paul Kedrosky recently provided a fascinating look at how two decades of profits could be wiped out in seven months. With 260,000 remaining employees, the end is near for this fallen giant.

Source: Paul Kedrosky Infectious Greed

A corporate governance study at sums up the reasons for GM's decline.

“The history of GM is an instructive story in how success can breed failure; how being the biggest and the best can lead to arrogance and an inability to adapt. GM was the premier car company in the world for so long that it failed to see the need for change. The company was so used to being leader that it couldn't contemplate following others. It was this mindset, this overwhelming belief that it was GM's divine right to be the most successful automobile company on earth that condemned the company to two decades of disaster. When GM did finally see the need to adapt, it did so with wild ineptitude, spending tens of billions in the 1980s for little reward.”

General Motors has lost $72.5 billion in the last three years. Why is the American taxpayer propping up this failed entity?

Long Road to Ruin

Bill Gross, one of the wisest and deepest thinkers in the financial world, wrote a report in May 2006 that compared the plight of GM with the plight of the United States . Mr. Gross' words almost three years ago ring even truer today.

“I think it is important to recognize that General Motors is a canary in this country's economic coal mine; a forerunner for what's to come for the broader economy. Their mistakes have resembled this nation's mistakes; their problems will be our future problems. If the U.S. and General Motors have similar flaws and indeed symbiotic fates, they appear to be conjoined primarily by the un-competitiveness of their existing labor cost structures and the onerous burden of their future healthcare and pension liabilities. Perhaps the most significant comparison between GM and the U.S. economy lies in the recognition of enormous unfunded liabilities in healthcare and pensions. Reportedly $1,500 of every GM car sold in dealer showrooms goes to pay for current and future health benefits of existing and retired workers, a sum totaling nearly $60 billion. The total future healthcare liability for all U.S. citizens can be measured in the tens of trillions.”

General Motors failed to find a solution to their problems. CFO Fritz Henderson admitted in 2006 that, “I have a social security system hooked to our balance sheet.” The reason he had a social security system hooked to his balance sheet was because previous management had made commitments that could never be kept in the long run in order to keep the party going in the short run. Sounds like GM management would do extremely well in government jobs.

Source: PIMCO


Eroding Competitiveness

The United States peaked as a manufacturing economy in 1960, with manufacturing employees making up 26% of the workforce. They now make up less than 10% of the workforce. Total manufacturing jobs peaked at 19 million in the late 1970's and now have plummeted below 14 million and continue to fall. The U.S. decided to outsource manufacturing jobs because we were going to do the thinking for the world. Why get your hands dirty creating things when our brilliant MBA trained geniuses could turn loans to deadbeats and frauds into AAA rated Mortgage Backed securities? The U.S. decided to take the easy path of financial engineering rather than the hard path of creating products that other countries would buy.

The trade deficit caused by decades of choices by government and industry reached $677 billion in 2008. These deficits were always unsustainable. Borrowing from the Chinese and Japanese to buy stuff produced by China and Japan could never go on forever. Instead of realizing this imbalance and taking actions to gradually rebalance the world financial system, our financial leaders and Federal Reserve reduced interest rates and encouraged the imbalance to grow, until it collapsed in 2008. Now their solution is to lower rates to 0%, devalue the currency, and encourage further borrowing. Sounds like choices made by GM in 2001 . The Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett explained the dilemma.

“In effect, our country has been behaving like an extraordinarily rich family that possesses an immense farm. In order to consume 4 percent more than we produce — that's the trade deficit — we have, day by day, been both selling pieces of the farm and increasing the mortgage on what we still own.”

The mortgage is now due.

Graph of International Trade Balances

Source: US Census Bureau

Uncompetitive Labor Costs

Family Income TrendsBy devaluing the currency and producing never ending inflation while manipulating the CPI statistics to understate true inflation, the government and Federal Reserve attempt to keep America competitive through gimmicks rather than hard work and sacrifice. When the country produced products that the world wanted, median family income rose at an annual rate of 3.7% above inflation. Since 1970, using government manipulated inflation statistics median family income has been stagnant. If a true inflation factor was applied, the median family has lower income today than they had 30 years ago. The only way people have “achieved” a better life is through the use of debt, which has been encouraged by the government, Federal Reserve and banks. This encouragement led to the collapse of the great American Ponzi scheme in 2008.

American families will see their real household incomes plunge in the coming years to 1970 levels. The backlash against immigrants, both legal and illegal is likely to intensify over the next few years. The decades of allowing our economy to be hollowed out and shipped to China is coming home to roost. Besides weapons and movies, what does America produce that anyone wants? Our financial geniuses have essentially brought down the worldwide financial system by selling foreign countries MBSs, CDOs, etc. That has been our contribution to the world in the last eight years. Now, we have delegated the responsibility of our corporations to the U.S. government bureaucracy. Lee Iacocca explained years ago how well the government runs things.

“One of the things the government can't do is run anything. The only things our government runs are the post office and the railroads, and both of them are bankrupt.”

Let's See How Far We've Come

The lyrics to the Matchbox 20 song Let's See How Far We've Come, describe the country's $56 trillion unfunded liability dilemma.

I believe the world is burning to the ground
Oh well I guess we're gonna find out
Let's see how far we've come
Let's see how far we've come

Well I, believe, it all, is coming to an end
Oh well, I guess, we're gonna pretend,
Let's see how far we've come
Let's see how far we've come

Rather than address the structural problems of our healthcare and social security systems, our government politicians push off the issues until after the next election. They have been doing this for 30 years. This is why David Walker has described these cowardly politicians as displaying “laggardship” rather than leadership. Our elected leaders flounder from crisis to crisis using stopgap methods to plug holes in the ship of state while ignoring the huge iceberg on the horizon. There is one thing I am sure of. The deficits projected by the CBO over the next four years will be hundreds of billions higher. They haven't taken into account emergency stimulus packages 2 & 3.

Projected Budget Deficit - Congressional Budget Office Baseline Plus Stimulus Bill


While the U.S. Titanic steams full speed ahead toward the iceberg of unfunded Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid liabilities, our politicians spend our tax dollars on digging holes and then filling them up again. As these future unfunded liabilities continue to rise, the government's solution is to print money, keep interest rates at 0%, devalue the dollar, and hope for the best. The U.S. depends on foreigners to buy more than 50% of our newly issued debt. When you owe $10.7 trillion to others, you usually don't get to dictate the terms. Today, the U.S. is asking foreigners to lend us money for 30 years at 3.5% while telling them that we will pay them back in dollars that will be worth 30% less in the next five years. Even a Wall Street CEO could figure out this isn't a good investment. The U.S. will default on this debt. It is just a matter of when.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid Will Consume Larger Percentage of GDP


Bill Gross laid out the choices for the U.S. in 2006. “How are we to pay for this future burden of healthcare and social security expenses? Aside from contractual legislative changes to both areas (which are surely just around the corner), the way a reserve currency nation gets out from under the burden of excessive liabilities is to inflate, devalue, and tax .”

The U.S. is hard at work on inflating and devaluing, while Mr. Obama is working on the details of the taxing. The Burning Platform for GM has already collapsed. The Burning Platform for the U.S. is a ten alarm fire. Collapse is imminent, unless a leader with guts and courage is willing to lead the U.S. back to fiscal sanity. If you believe in fiscal sanity, please join me at .

By James Quinn

James Quinn is a senior director of strategic planning for a major university. James has held financial positions with a retailer, homebuilder and university in his 22-year career. Those positions included treasurer, controller, and head of strategic planning. He is married with three boys and is writing these articles because he cares about their future. He earned a BS in accounting from Drexel University and an MBA from Villanova University. He is a certified public accountant and a certified cash manager.

These articles reflect the personal views of James Quinn. They do not necessarily represent the views of his employer, and are not sponsored or endorsed by his employer.

© 2009 Copyright James Quinn - All Rights Reserved
Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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Louis Blasiotti
03 Jun 09, 23:15
Incentives, Incentives, Incentives and a reduction in frivolous spending

Generating incentives and a reduction in frivolous spending is what Congress should be doing. One incentive would be to provide a $15,000.00 tax incentive to any and all buyers of any and all homes whether they be a primary home or an investment home.

The Stimulus package should be spent on infrastructure only and nothing else.

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