WASHINGTON – A top adviser to President Obama's auto industry task force said Monday that bankruptcy is not the goal of the administration's efforts to restructure General Motors and Chrysler but stressed that the government cannot solve all of the industry's woes.
Steven Rattner, a Wall Street financier who is advising Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the auto industry panel, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the task force was trying to successfully restructure the companies during a difficult economic downturn.
"Bankruptcy is not our goal," Rattner said. "Bankruptcy is not an ideal place for any company to be. It is sometimes necessary but something that ideally one wants to avoid and so we're very focused on solving the problem, not on filing for bankruptcy."
General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC have received a combined $17.4 billion in government loans to stave off bankruptcy and have requested billions in additional aid. The loan agreements negotiated with the Bush administration set a March 31 deadline for restructuring the companies, with the possibility of a 30-day extension.
Rattner said he expected more work would be done on the restructuring beyond the March 31 deadline. "We feel that we do owe it to all the stakeholders here to have something thoughtful to say, ideally, prior to the end of March. But it will not be the last word."
Obama's auto task force has been meeting with company executives, officials with the United Auto Workers, holders of GM's $28 billion in unsecured debt, auto suppliers and other stakeholders to attempt to reorganize the companies. The task force met Monday with GM CEO Rick Wagoner and Chief Operating Officer Fritz Henderson, who also met with a top German economic minister about aid for one of its European subsidiaries, Germany's Adam Opel GmbH.
"It's our job to determine whether these companies are viable and if so on what basis the government should invest additional taxpayer resources," Rattner said. "And after that it's up to the management and boards of these companies to run these companies."
"We have every intention to keep these companies in private shareholders' hands and allow them to function as members of our free enterprise society," he said.
Rattner stressed in the interview that the government could not solve all the problems faced by the industry's stakeholders, suggesting the need for more intense negotiations between the parties.
GM is negotiating with its bondholders to reduce its level of debt by two-thirds and seeking additional givebacks from the UAW. Chrysler is seeking similar concessions.
"All the stakeholders would like to see the situation resolved but virtually all of them think that the U.S. government can solve all problems,and we can't," Rattner said, noting the panel's interest in making the companies viable.
"The bondholders have suggested that we help solve their problems, and I think that is a bit of a tough ask," he said. Asked about the UAW's efforts, Rattner said he was impressed by "the thoughtfulness and fact-based nature of the UAW's presentation to us."
Advisers to a committee of GM's bondholders said in a statement that it had presented a framework for a successful debt-to-equity exchange that would have been consistent with the government's requirements and provided "the best chance ... of completing an out-of-court restructuring by securing a high level of acceptance among a diverse group of GM bondholders."
The advisers said they were "eager to continue our discussions with both GM and the auto task force."
Bondholders have been reluctant to accept concessions that would leave them with only a small portion of the face value of their bonds but they could lose everything in a bankruptcy proceeding. They have discussed whether the government would guarantee new bonds that GM would issue as part of its restructuring.
Aaron Bragman, an analyst for the consulting firm IHS Global Insight in Troy, Mich., said Rattner's comments about GM's bondholders appeared to be designed to entice more productive negotiations.
"I think it may be the attempt to get that one last party to the table," Bragman said. "They don't want bankruptcy necessarily but will use it if necessary. By specifically naming the bondholders as a potential trouble area, that's going to draw more attention to them."