Saturday, November 22, 2008

Matters at Home

Remember how at first, Treasury was going to buy "troubled" mortgage assets under the TARP program and then Hank Paulson pulled the plug on the idea two weeks ago? Well guess what? Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee wants Treasury to buy troubled mortgages after all. In a new letter to Paulson, he asks that Treasury begin purchasing whole loans on a "large scale" for the specific purpose of modifying the loans and keeping borrowers in their homes. If Frank gets his way, I would assume Treasury will start hiring contractors to help carry out the plan. Ultimately, the decision will be up to the incoming Obama Administration and New York Federal Reserve president Tim Geithner who was just tapped to be the first Treasury secretary in the new White House

Let's talk about U.S. automakers, home prices and the unemployment rate. If one or two of the "Big Three" go down, rest assured that today's mortgage delinquencies will be a picnic compared to what follows. But first, a story I was told by closing attorney John McDermott who writes a column for our sister publication, Origination News. The Ann Arbor-based McDermott told me a friend of his works as an engineer for an auto parts supply company. The rumor making the rounds this week is that some of the company's employees -- including this engineer -- will be furloughed for the entire month of December. Now, think about all those assembly line workers, managers, parts suppliers and businesses that operate in communities where GM, Chrysler and Ford have plants. All are at risk when it comes to layoffs and furloughs. Let's assume that 60% of these workers have a mortgage. Should TARP money be used to extend a line of credit to the automakers? That's up to Congress to decide, but a $25 billion line of credit would seem like a small price to pay for avoiding even more damage to the economy -- and the housing/mortgage market in particular. If Congress does "bail out" the automakers it should be a "strings attached" loan with union contracts reworked and a mandate to produce more fuel efficient and cheaper cars. Maybe TARP money should even be used to sell the Big Three to Honda or Toyota. Oil is at $50 a barrel, compared to a summer high of $140. But does anyone really think oil will stay at $50 over the long haul? Go 'Green'


Auto Workers

This is a rough week to live in one of America's automobile towns, long known to be "struggling" but now apparently "dying," for lack of even a tin cup federal bailout.

Congress is closing the door on $25 billion for an auto industry bailout out of the total $700 billion bailout package. It seems like everybody can get a bailout, some coins in the tin cup, except for us in the auto towns. This isn't true, but dang, it sure feels like we're being picked on.

In Michigan, the lack of a tin up is the most rough being from Saginaw (my dot on the map), or from Flint or Bay City along the I-75 corridor. Of the Big Three automakers, we're stuck exclusively with General Motors, the one that looks like it's going bankrupt without the bailout. At least Pontiac and Metro Detroit have Ford and also Chrysler, which at least are not going totally to hell in a handbasket, at least not yet.

It's no surprise in these quarters that the top execs from General Motors and Ford and Chrysler would be greedy enough to keep taking seven- and even eight-figure salaries through all of these hard times for the auto industry, which in truth started 30 to 40 years ago. It sparks no sense of wonderment that they would be dimwits enough to fly into Washington on private corporate jets, while at the same time holding out what the one congressman so accurately described as a tin cup. Even while they testified Tuesday in pursuit of their 25 bazzilion tin cup share of the bailout --- that's a big tin cup! --- they still didn't seem to get it.

This is just their nature. General "Generous" Motors through all of its years in Saginaw has been the worst corporate tightwad that any community could imagine. GM treated the community like it was the one with a tin up. Oh sure, GM would put a few paltry bucks into the annual drive for the Community Chest nee United Fund nee United Way, but in perspective this couldn't even measure up to three coins in a fountain, much less a tin cup.
Dow Chemical Co. also is in this mid-Michigan area and Dow Chemical hasn't always been the best neighbor, with its legacy of toxins and dioxins, but Dow's community contributions should have shamed GM by comparison, if GM had any shame. General Motors executives would always argue that their community contribution was to create jobs, as though they personally had created the jobs, rather than job creation being done by the corporation that also created their very own jobs.

Some observers have constantly groused how the United Auto Workers union has broken the back of the domestic auto industry. But now that the Big Three auto execs are playing their hands in Washington this week, maybe more people will begin to understand the UAW's behavior. When the executives ride so high on the hog, the UAW members would feel like chumps to bend over backwards at contract time. Then the auto execs have the gall to create an "analysis" in which the total compensation to a UAW member is said to be $73 an hour. This includes not just the salary and the benefits, but also the pension and probably the cost of heating the auto plants during the winter. Has any similar analysis been done on any other American worker? If the auto execs obtained WalMart, they would probably try to complain that total compensation to a WalMart worker is $50 an hour, or whatever.

The bullishness of General Motors in Saginaw would especially come on the rare occasions when they were conducting small plant expansions. GM executives would pursue maximum tax breaks the way the Godfather would pursue payoffs. Their message was that they had "an offer you can't refuse." Their whole theme was that they would move elsewhere if their tax-break tin cup were not filled. Often they blackmailed tax breaks for facilities that still closed down before the tax breaks expired.

A small part of me becomes still defensive. It's not like the Big Three carmakers are the only bad apples. For example, AIG also has corporate jets for top executives and AIG is still getting $150 billion. And on the ground level, the Japanese cars never were that much better, it's just that people who chose to be different by choosing Japanese cars would never admit they screwed up if their cars went on the fritz.

But the bottom line for me is being sad for Saginaw family and friends, present and passed, who worked in the auto industry for General Motors. They deserved better.