In its rush to save Detroit, the American government is trashing creditors’ rights
NO ONE who lent money to General Motors (GM) or Chrysler can have been unaware of their dire finances. Nor can workers have failed to notice their employers’ precarious futures. These were firms that barely stayed afloat in the boom and both creditors and employees were taking a punt on their promise to pay debts and generous health-care benefits.
The bet has failed. The recession has tipped both firms into the abyss—together they lost $48 billion last year. Chrysler has entered bankruptcy, from which it may emerge under Fiat’s control. GM could soon follow if efforts to hammer out a voluntary restructuring fail. America’s government, keen to protect workers, is providing taxpayers’ cash to keep the lights on at both firms. But in its haste it has vilified creditors and ridden roughshod over their legitimate claims over the carmakers’ assets. At a time when many businesses must raise new borrowing to survive, that is a big mistake.
Bankruptcies involve dividing a shrunken pie. But not all claims are equal: some lenders provide cheaper funds to firms in return for a more secure claim over the assets should things go wrong. They rank above other stakeholders, including shareholders and employees. This principle is now being trashed. On April 30th, after the failure of negotiations, Chrysler entered Chapter 11. Under the proposed scheme, secured creditors owed some $7 billion will recover 28 cents per dollar. Yet an employee health-care trust, operated at arm’s length by the United Auto Workers union, which ranks lower down the capital structure, will receive 43 cents on its $11 billion-odd of claims, as well as a majority stake in the restructured firm.
The many creditors who have acquiesced include banks that themselves rely on the government’s purse. The objectors have been denounced as “speculators” by Barack Obama. The judge overseeing the case has consented to a quick, “prepackaged” bankruptcy, which seems to give little scope for creditors to argue their case or pursue the alternative of liquidating the company’s assets. In effect Chrysler and the government have overridden the legal pecking order to put workers’ health-care benefits above more senior creditors’ claims, and then successfully argued in court that the alternative would be so much worse for creditors that it cannot be seriously considered.
The Treasury has also put a gun to the heads of GM’s lenders. Unsecured creditors owed about $27 billion are being asked to accept a recovery rate of 5 cents, says Barclays Capital, whereas the health-care trust, which ranks equal to them, gets 50 cents as well as a big stake in the restructured firm. If creditors refuse to co-operate, the government will probably seek to squash them using the same fast-track legal process.
Chapter and verse
The collapse of Detroit’s giants is a tragedy, affecting tens of thousands of current and former workers. But the best way to offer them support is directly, not by gerrymandering the rules. The investors in these firms are easily portrayed as vultures, but many are entrusted with the savings of ordinary people, and in any case all have a legal claim that entitles them to due process. In a crisis it is easy to put politics first, but if lenders fear their rights will be abused, other firms will find it more expensive to borrow, especially if they have unionised workforces that are seen to be friendly with the government.
It may be too late for Chrysler’s secured creditors and if GM’s lenders cannot reach a voluntary agreement, they may face a similar fate. That would establish a terrible precedent. Bankruptcy exists to sort legal claims on assets. If it becomes a tool of social policy, who will then lend to struggling firms in which the government has a political interest?
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