Vice President Joe Biden’s case for reelecting Barack Obama in November is simple. “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” He reiterated that message at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina on Thursday.
The president, said Biden, “saved more than a million American jobs” He added, “If the president didn’t act immediately, there wouldn’t be any industry left to save.” The former statement is true, at least in the short term, but the latter is patently false.
When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, automakers Chrysler and General Motors were on the brink of bankruptcy. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he argued that the two companies had to go through bankruptcy to reduce employment costs and replace management. A “managed bankruptcy,” he wrote, “would permit the companies to shed excess labor, pension and real estate costs.”
But don’t ask Washington to give shareholders and bondholders a free pass — they bet on management and they lost.
The libertarian Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole agreed and takes issue with Biden’s claim that there “wouldn’t be an industry left” if it hadn’t been for President Obama’s intervention. If Chrysler and General Motors had gone through bankruptcy, “most of their factories would have stayed open and they would have continued making and selling cars.”
Bankruptcy would have allowed the companies to avoid interest and dividend payments for a time and to renegotiate union contracts. Under bankruptcy laws, stockholders would have lost the value of their stocks but bond owners — who have first claim to company assets and profits — would have been paid off, if not in whole than at least in part.
Instead, the two automakers received a bailout and were effectively nationalized. Once in government hands, the companies still had to file for bankruptcy but now, not just stockholders but Chrysler’s bondholders lost everything. And instead of renegotiating pay and pensions, the administration gave unions — who, in previous years, had constantly demanded salary increases despite rising foreign competition — greater control.
In other words, the administration didn’t bail out the companies; it bailed out the unions at the expense of (in Chrysler’s case) the bondholders.
The result was uncertainly in bond markets. “Bonds were supposed to be safer investments than stocks.” Not anymore. The auto bailouts showed that at any point, government can step in and void the legal rights of bondholders. “The result is that bond sellers must be willing to pay more interest to attract buyers.”
O’Toole concludes that even if the Obama Administration saved jobs, it “prolonged the recession by discouraging private investment in American industry.”
Indeed, this very week, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013 (PDF) downgraded American competitiveness in part because the business community “continues to be critical toward public and private institutions” and is “concerned about the government’s ability to maintain arms length relationships with the private sector.”
Similarly, the Index of Economic Freedom, compiled annually by the conservative Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, points out that “recent government interventions have eroded limits on government” and, “Fading confidence in the government’s determination to promote or even sustain open markets has discouraged entrepreneurship and dynamic investment within the private sector.”