A New Auto Industry Model: Not Too Big to Fail

“A new business model” is what Jack Nerad of Kelly Blue Book called the proposed sale of Saturn by General Motors (GM) to Roger Penske’s Penske Automotive Group.

What makes it a new model is that Penske would only buy the brand and the dealer network. Penske would subcontract vehicle production other manufacturers, though for the first two years, the GM Saturn plant would produce the cars. Doubtless, Penske will buy vehicles from assembly plants able to provide the best quality for the dollar, establishing competition at the factory rather than corporate level. This radical departure solves the fundamental problem leading to the near-death of the American automobile industry.

Following World War II, America had little competition. Industrial powers such as in Europe and Japan were flat on their backs and American manufacturers had a “clear field.” American labor and management bid up the price of heavy manufactured goods so much that they became less competitive when war torn economies recovered.

Americans paid over and over again in their automotive purchases. They paid first through reliability difficulties that were the inevitable result of attempting to compete on price with foreign firms with costs that were competitive in world markets. Finally, they paid with more than $60 billion in loans to General Motors, GMAC and Chrysler. Canadians also paid twice, most recently in more than $13 billion in loans that make their per capita contribution substantially higher than that of Americans. It is not at all clear that North American taxpayers will ever see these amounts repaid (American taxpayers are still waiting for the first penny of repayment from Amtrak on loans made more than 25 years ago).

The recent loans were the result of a political consensus that GM and Chrysler were “too big to fail.” In an industry characterized by the Penske-Saturn model, the too-big-to-fail problem would be removed.