How Fiat took U.S. taxpayers for a ride

John Berlau Senior Fellow, CEI
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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.

According to Barron’s, “Chrysler’s resurgence has been so strong that it now provides a lifeline for Turin’s Fiat, which faces serious challenges in Western Europe.” Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne told Barron’s: “The Fiat Group has a future because of Chrysler.” Similarly, Bloomberg reported that, “without Chrysler, the Italian automaker would have posted a first-quarter net loss” in 2012.

But ironically, Fiat’s Marchionne has made Chrysler profitable again not by producing more of Fiat’s mini-cars, as the Obama administration urged it to do, but rather by doubling down on Chrysler’s most “environmentally incorrect” light trucks and sport-utility vehicles, such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango. In reporting Chrysler’s profit surge, Bloomberg noted that these earnings were “boosted by demand” for Jeep Grand Cherokees, while Fiat has “delayed new models such as the Punto hatchback.”

Marchionne deserves some credit. By refusing to follow General Motors’ lead to march in lockstep with the Obama administration’s wishes, he did not turn Chrysler into another “Government Motors,” making its own version of Chevy Volts that nobody wants.

But making more Jeeps and Dodge Durangos is — to use a transportation cliché — sort of like reinventing the wheel. Some other competent CEO could have figured that one out. Yet Chrysler being tied to Fiat’s European woes makes it less and less likely that much of the profit will be reinvested in the U.S. It’s likely that the bulk of that profit will instead be plowed into Fiat’s operations in Italy.

In June 2012, the Wall Street Journal painted a devastating picture of Fiat’s bloated workforce at its Turin headquarters. “Too many inefficient plants, coupled with a plunge in consumer demand, have left not only Fiat, but other car makers … bleeding cash.” Yet Fiat, which employs 63,000 Italian workers, “says it has no plans to cut jobs.” Instead, due to antiquated Italian labor laws (that Big Labor champions in the U.S.), it “furloughs” workers when it idles plants and pays them two-thirds of their salaries.

Because of the dysfunction of its Italian operations, Fiat must squeeze all it can out of its new Chrysler cash cow — bequeathed to it by U.S. taxpayers at the Obama administration’s behest, Fiat will be reluctant to put many more American workers on its payroll with so many mouths to feed in its native Italy. According to a just-published Reuters report, Italian politicians say that Fiat “has given Rome guarantees that the automaker will invest in plants in Italy and keep a strong presence in the country.”

Had Chrysler gone through a traditional court-approved bankruptcy before it received any government money (as Romney advocated in a 2008 New York Times op-ed), its investors and workers would have had the opportunity to ask questions about Fiat’s financial viability. Even in 2009, Fiat was showing strains as its credit rating had already been downgraded to “junk,” so a good bankruptcy judge would likely have blocked such a merger.

It is true that President  George W. Bush provided initial funds for the auto bailout, and Romney backed government funding for a pre-packaged bankruptcy. Government aid to a specific business is something free market advocates can never support. But  the Obama administration’s politicized bankruptcy — in which Chrysler was given to Fiat at the expense of creditors first in line — took away  the fundamental guarantee of the rule of law. Many American workers are suffering as a result.

John Berlau is senior fellow for finance and access to capital at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.