The Daily Caller

The Daily Caller
A Fiat logo is seen on a car during a press preview at the 2013 New York International Auto Show in New York, March 28, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar A Fiat logo is seen on a car during a press preview at the 2013 New York International Auto Show in New York, March 28, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar  

How Fiat took U.S. taxpayers for a ride

Photo of John Berlau
John Berlau
Senior Fellow, CEI

As 2014 opened, Detroit was bankrupt, but they were cheering the five-year-old U.S. auto bailout in Italy. That’s because after being the beneficiary of billions in U.S. taxpayer largesse, Fiat, the 115-year-old Italian auto company, is going to buy its final stake in Chrysler from that other big bailout recipient, the United Auto Workers (UAW).

“Chrysler’s Now Fully an Italian Auto Company,” reads the Time magazine online headline. But wait a minute! Wasn’t the bailout supposed to be about saving the American auto industry?

Late in the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took heat for arguments, based on news accounts,  that the Obama administration “sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China.” Politifact gave Romney its “lie of the year” award, even though the claim turned out to be correct.

But  as Mark Beatty and I noted in the Daily Caller at the time, Romney missed the real reason for outrage. Chrysler wasn’t “sold” to an Italian firm, but given away through U.S. tax dollars. As we wrote in November 2012:

“The real outrage arising from the 2009 Chrysler bailout is not that its parent company, Fiat, is planning to build plants in China. It’s that the politicized bankruptcy process limited Chrysler’s growth potential by tying it to an Italian dinosaur in the midst of the European fiscal crisis. The Obama administration literally gave away ownership of one of the Big Three American auto manufacturers to an Italian car maker struggling with labor and productivity issues worse than those that drove Chrysler to near-liquidation.”

Moody’s had downgraded Fiat’s credit rating to “junk” even before the Obama administration arranged for it to acquire a Chrysler stake in 2009, and in Autumn 2012, Moody’s gave Fiat another downgrade that the Financial Times described as even “further into ‘junk’ territory.” And just after Fiat announced it was buying Chrysler’s final stake in 2014, Moody’s put the company under review for a possible further downgrade.

As we noted , much of Chrysler’s profits from its overhauled line are going to prop up Fiat’s failing, money-losing Italian business, rather than to expanding production and jobs in the U.S. Politifact and others felt confident in calling Romney’s claim a “lie” by citing Fiat’s assurance that it would only build Chrysler products in overseas market to sell to those markets. Yet in December 2012, just one week after Politifact awarded its “lie,” Fiat announced that it would be making a line of Jeeps in Melfi, Italy, for export to “markets worldwide,” including the U.S.

In 2012, Barron’s put it like this in a headline, “This time, Chrysler could bail out Fiat.” Actually, the Barron’s headline is slightly misleading in one respect — Fiat didn’t contribute much of anything to the Chrysler’s bailout.

In the 2009 deal overseen by the Obama administration’s auto task force, Fiat paid no money to acquire its initial 20 percent stake in Chrysler — only contributing some of its intellectual property, instead. Fiat would later pay $2.2 billion to raise its stake in the company to 58.5 percent.

Continuing the bailout shell game, Fiat will now pay fellow bailout recipient UAW $4.4 billion for its stake in Chrysler. All the while, the U.S. government has pitched in more than $12 billion in taxpayer infusions.

In “saving” the American auto industry, Obama gave an American company away. And he gave it away at the expense of pension funds and other secured creditors, which were given a much smaller stake in the new company than they would have been given under traditional bankruptcy proceedings. American manufacturing workers also lost out on the deal; many are now hostages to the woes of Fiat and the Italian economy.