The sagging economy hasn't been kind to the auto industry. But when you're trying to convince customers to feel confident about buying vehicles, talk of a looming bankruptcy can't be very helpful to your sales pitch.

General Motors (NYSE:GM) certainly understands that, now more than ever. The automaker posted a $6 billion first-quarter loss. GM saw revenues almost cut in half to $22 billion as its operating cash flow came in at a staggering $10.2 billion deficit. Production fell 40%, due largely to plant closures at many facilities during January. GM reported $3.2 billion in net losses before income tax in its North American markets, a $2 billion loss in Europe, and a tiny $16 million profit in its Latin America, Africa, and Middle East segment.

What's to come
If Chrysler's experience is any guide, this news could be just as bad for GM bondholders as for those who own shares.

The bankruptcy court has already issued a number of unfavorable rulings that try to smooth the way for a quick process. Over the objections of the bondholders, the judge approved Chrysler's tapping an additional $4.5 billion in government financing to keep Chrysler running during the bankruptcy process. It also approved a May 27 date for auctioning off Chrysler's assets, which clears the way for Fiat to take a stake without assuming any of Chrysler's liabilities. Finally, it ruled the lenders must publicly identify themselves, despite fears of retribution. Suggestions that the bankruptcy proceedings could be a long, drawn-out affair now seem quaint, with attention focusing on any remaining holdouts.

There seems to be little doubt that GM will follow Chrysler into bankruptcy protection. GM's bondholders probably won't fare any better, as the Chrysler affair will likely serve as a warning to anyone taking a stance against the interests of the government. The reverse stock split GM announced yesterday should help pave the way for a dilutive offering that will cripple bondholders and virtually wipe out existing shareholders, with the government and the UAW divvying up the carmaker's carcass. With a June 1 deadline looming, taxpayers are about to become majority owners of a very sick business.

Car sales have fallen year-over-year for all automakers. Chrysler, Toyota (NYSE:TM), and Nissan (NASDAQ:NSANY) all felt worse following April's sales report, but Ford (NYSE:F) and Honda (NYSE:HMC) actually saw sales strengthen from March's levels, even though the total number of cars was still down from last year. Ford actually outsold Toyota for the month. Meananalysts are hoping the month represents an inflection point for the industry.

Despite GM's losses being narrower than analysts had expected, it will all be for naught anyway, as the government seems to have decided it wants this to be the end of the line. With everyone claiming a piece of the pie, existing shareholders are going to end up getting derailed.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.