Obama screws the GM bond holders
President Obama insisted at his press conference last night that he doesn't want to nationalize the auto industry (or the banks, or the mortgage market, or . . .). But if that's true, why has he proposed a restructuring plan for General Motors that leaves the government with a majority stake in the car maker?I still don't understand why the bondholders don't force GM into a bankruptcy. They have the power to do so and even if they had to take the company into a Chapter 7 liquidation to do it, it would give them the leverage to get a fairer deal from the government and the unions. These bondholders also include pension funds and other institutional investors that deserve the same deal as the union pension fund. In fact, they deserve a better deal since the unions are one of the reasons GM is in the mess to begin with.
The feds have decided they should own a neat 50% of GM, yet that is not the natural outcome of the $16.2 billion that the Treasury has so far lent to the company. Nor is the 40% ownership of GM that the plan awards to the United Auto Workers a natural result of the company's obligations to the union.
Yet Secretary Timothy Geithner and his auto task force, led by Steven Rattner, have somehow decided that Treasury and UAW chief Ron Gettelfinger will get to own a combined 90% of GM. If there's a reason other than the political symbiosis among the Obama Administration, Michigan Democrats and the auto union, it's hard to discern. From now on let's call it Gettelfinger Motors, or perhaps simply the Obama Motor Company, though in the latter they'd have to change the nameplates.
The biggest losers here are GM's bondholders. According the Treasury-GM debt-for-equity swap announced Monday, GM has $27.2 billion in unsecured bonds owned by the public. These are owned by mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds and retail investors who bought them directly through their brokers. Under Monday's offer, they would exchange their $27.2 billion in bonds for 10% of the stock of the restructured GM. This could amount to less than five cents on the dollar.
The Treasury, which is owed $16.2 billion, would receive 50% of the stock and $8.1 billion in debt -- as much as 87 cents on the dollar. The union's retiree health-care benefit trust would receive half of the $20 billion it is owed in stock, giving it 40% ownership of GM, plus another $10 billion in cash over time. That's worth about 76 cents on the dollar, according to some estimates.
In a genuine Chapter 11 bankruptcy, these three groups of creditors would all be similarly situated -- because all three are, for the most part, unsecured creditors of GM. And yet according to the formula presented Monday, those with the largest claim -- the bondholders -- get the smallest piece of the restructured company by a huge margin.
...GM, the government and the bondholders all insist that a bankruptcy filing would be a disaster. GM's SEC filing on the debt-equity swap also warns darkly that if the requisite 90% of bondholders don't agree to these terms, they may recover little or nothing in bankruptcy court. But given the choice between a 10% stake in Gettelfinger Motors and the independent mercies of a bankruptcy judge, bondholders could be forgiven for taking their chances in court.