The tale of woe from the automotive industry seems like a microcosm of the hand-wringing going on all over the financial sector: A series of bad choices led General Motors (NYSE: GM ) and Chrysler to a precipice, and now they want the taxpayers to bail them out.
Sounds a lot like the crying going on about how we need to cough up a few hundred billion to save the banks because they didn't know how to say no.
The $25 billion handout to the Big Three was signed into law on Tuesday, and it's separate from the bailout package that failed in the House but passed in the Senate this week.
So now, facing an 11-month skid in sales -- the worst slump in 17 years -- the American carmakers want you and me to foot their bill for a whole host of incredibly short-sighted decisions. We're not only supposed to pay for them to retool their plants, but also to pony up for more loans to sell cars -- loans they're unwilling or unable to make themselves.
Ignore for a moment Detroit's decision to continue churning out gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks as fuel prices spiraled ever upwards. Faced with tighter credit not only for themselves but also for consumers, the automakers simultaneously ratcheted up their lending requirements and either did away with or limited the availability of leasing programs. It's not hard to imagine that when it became harder to get a loan or lease a car, the carmakers saw demand for their vehicles plummet.
September sales for Ford (NYSE: F ) fell 35%, and General Motors is expected to report a 25% decline. And they're not alone. Honda Motors (NYSE: HMC ) is off 24% from a year ago, Hyundai is down 25%, and Toyota (NYSE: TM ) is expected to fall by 20%. Nissan (Nasdaq: NSANY ) sales dropped 33%.
This $25 billion handout may herald a new way for politicians to pass a bailout package: Do it in piecemeal fashion, one industry at a time. In comparison with the $700 billion whopper of a price tag on the Paulson plan, showering $25 billion on automakers is like flipping a quarter into a beggar's tin can. You can give out such largesse daily almost without thinking.
The only strings that came with the money is for Detroit to use it for its intended purposes of building more fuel-efficient cars. You'd think Ford and GM could have come to that conclusion a long time ago -- say, after the gas crises of the '70s and '80s -- but why do today what you can have Uncle Sam pay for tomorrow?