General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre boasted in The Wall Street Journel last week that his company paid back its government bailout “in full, with interest, years ahead of schedule.” GM has subsequently began running advertisements promoting its financial responsibility while proponents of the bailouts are yelling, “I told you so!”
But, writing for Forbes, Shikha Dalmia has a rather different story to tell. “Before belting out their victory aria, GM-boosters ought to hear the whole story,” she notes, “not just the fairytale version about Government Motors; grand comeback that Mr Whitacre is feeding them.”
The government provided so much as $49.5 billion in aid to General Motors last summer. One would assume, reading Whitacre’s column with the headline “The GM Bailout: Paid Back in Full,” that the company has paid back those $49.5 billion. But no.
Because a loan of such quantity would have been politically controversial, the administration provided just $6.7 billion in loans. The bulk of the bailout money was transferred to General Motors through the purchase of a 60.8% equity stake in the company — “arguably an even worse deal for taxpayers than the loan,” according to Dalmia, “given that the equity position requires them to bear the risk of the investment without any guaranteed return.”
So, when Whitacre proclaims that GM has paid back its bailout “in full,” he is referring exclusively to that $6.7 billion loan. And he conveniently neglects to mention the rest of the money in his article.
Even that’s not the whole story though. Dalmia knows that the Obama Administration put $13.4 billion of the aid money as “working capital” in an escrow account when the company faced bankruptcy. “The company is using this escrow money — government money — to pay back the government loan.” According to GM though, this only goes to show that they’re on the road to recovery. But if that’s true, Dalmia wonders, why has the company applied for a further $10 billion loan with the Department of Energy?
GM boasts that, because it is doing so well, it is paying the $6.7 billion five years ahead of schedule since it was not due until 2015. So will there be an accelerated payback of the rest of the $49.6 billion investment? No. That goal has been pushed back, as it turns out.
Indeed, there is no certainty that the government will ever recoup all of the money is used to bail out GM. The General Accountability Office, for instance, remains deeply pessimistic. It concluded in December that, “The Treasury is unlikely to recover the entirety of its investment in Chrysler or GM, given that the companies’ values would have to grow substantially more than they have in the past.”
Dalmia describes Whitacre’s ploy as “a desperate attempt to win back the car-buying public deeply disgusted by the spectacle of GM rattling its tin-cup before Uncle Sam.” In reality, the company is still in trouble. It might be able to recover. It might not. In any event, “it’s premature for its media boosters to pop open the champagne bottle without getting their story straight.”