Commentary: President Obama's next job?

The Miami HeraldAugust 18, 2012 

It’s never too early to think about your next job, especially if you’re president and unemployment has been over 8 percent for your entire term. So I imagine Barack Obama has probably spent some time contemplating where he could send his résumé. Here’s my advice, Mr. President: Forget the stock brokerages. Because inevitably some squinty-eyed little HR person is going to say, “Now, about that speech you made about General Motors . . .”

You know, the one in April 2010, when you bragged that the government had done so well at the auto business that, any day now, it would be selling its share of the company. “It won’t be too long before the stock the Treasury is holding in GM could be sold,” you told us. “As essential as it was that we got in, I’m glad to see that we’re getting out.”

Twenty-eight months later, American taxpayers still own 500 million shares of GM, more than a quarter of the company. And the chances of selling them at anything but an enormous loss recede every day. Just to break even on the government’s $50 billion investment in GM, that stock has to sell for about $54 a share. Fat chance.

Six months after Obama’s rosy prediction, the government did indeed put about half its shares of GM on the market and got $33 apiece for them. Since then, GM’s European sales have tanked, its politically correct Chevy Volts have developed a disconcerting propensity for bursting into flames, and the company has been firing executives right and left. For the past nine months, the company’s share price has hovered around $20.

And the financial picture may be about to get worse. Investor’s Business Daily reported recently that GM is increasingly relying on subprime auto loans — that is, loans to customers with sketchy credit — to sell its cars. The auto-loan market, just like the one in housing loans, assigns potential borrowers FICO scores according to their financial history. The general industry rule is that scores under 660 are considered subprime.

From the last quarter of 2010 through the first one of 2012, GM Financial — the company’s lending arm — handed out $7 billion to car buyers with FICO scores under 600. Loans to the highest-risk customers, those with FICO scores under 540, jumped 79 percent. “The subprime market grew as a result of the recession,” a GM spokesman told Investor’s Business Daily. “Our experience, however, is that with proper management they are very good risks.” Yeah, where have we heard that before?

The bottom line is that taxpayers are still on the hook for about $27 billion in bailout money for GM plus another $15 billion for Ally Financial, the company financier that used to be known as GMAC. That comes as a surprise to most Americans. What about those heartwarming TV ads in 2010, when GM chairman Ed Whitacre gazed dramatically into the camera and swore that “we have repaid our government loan, in full, with interest, five years ahead of the original schedule’’?

It turns out that Whitacre, like the wily care salesman that he is, was concealing the real dimensions of the deal in the fine print. Of the $67 billion government bailout of GM and its lending arm, only about $6.7 billion came in the form of a loan. The rest was invested in GM stock, which these days is barking like a dog. Though President Obama, out on the campaign trail, prefers the phrase “roaring back.”

Maybe he’s got a future in conveying pre-enjoyed automobiles.

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