The President’s Chrysler announcement last Thursday produced mixed results.

The agreement among Chrysler, Fiat, UAW, the Administration, and the large banks appears to increase the probability (from almost zero) that Chrysler will survive for the long run, albeit as a part of Fiat. This is clearly a good thing.Is it worth the cost to taxpayers and the broader damage caused by government interference in the economy?

Taxpayers will sustain Chrysler during its restructuring. (Fiat is putting up no cash.)The Administration has committed $8.1 billion of new taxpayer funding for a bankruptcy process that they think will take 60 days, followed by a transition period of unknown duration. I think the final cost will exceed this additional $8 B, in part because I doubt the 60-day timeframe. Since the Administration agreed to forgive about $4 B the taxpayer has already loaned to Chrysler, I am also pessimistic about the taxpayer’s chances of getting back this new $8+ B outlay of funds.

It appears the Administration reached agreement first with UAW and the big bank creditors, and then tried to “jam” the dissident creditors with a tough and possibly unfair take-it-or-leave-it offer. When those creditors rejected the Administration’s offer, the President publicly excoriated them.

The result may be a firm that survives, but there are serious adverse consequences of this process and dangerous precedents for the broader economy:

  1. Industrial policy
    1. Leveraging TARP banks – It appears the Obama team pressured TARP-recipient big banks to forgive much of their loans to Chrysler. If so, they have taken a huge step toward making these banks instruments of public policy rather than private firms. This is a primary fear of “managed capitalism” – political leaders start leveraging one sector to influence another.
    2. Bypassing the capital structure and bankruptcy process – There is no such thing as a level playing field when the government negotiates with private parties. The Obama team set themselves up as both the arbiter of the negotiation and a participant in it. It now appears that they are trying an end-run around the Chapter 11 process through a section 363 sale. If they are successful, they will have interfered with the rights of others who thought they could rely on the traditional bankruptcy structure to protect their interests. The Obama team is introducing significant political risk into future business loans by undermining the traditional bankruptcy process. This makes future loans more expensive for firms.
    3. Leveraging Fiat to meet new and arbitrary fuel efficiency goals – The fuel efficiency goals mandated by CAFE come from legislative bargaining. The new targets for Fiat (e.g., a 40 mpg vehicle made in the US) were created from thin air by the Obama negotiators. Suppose they had said Fiat cannot make blue cars. Would that be OK? When combined with the apparent cross-sector leveraging of TARP banks, this suggests a scary level of micromanagement and political interference.
  2. The deal appears to favor the President’s political allies — UAW is part of the deal, “investment firms and hedge funds” are not. The fuel efficiency crowd is presumably happy with the new requirements imposed on Fiat. The appearance the Administration has created, reinforced by the President’s public bashing of the dissident creditors, is that they used carrots with their friends, threatened the big banks with a stick, and then hit the dissident creditors with that stick when they refused the Administration’s offer. If the reality reflects this appearance, then the Administration has abused its power in structuring the proposed deal.
  3. Demagoguery — The President attacked people for asking to be paid back the money they loaned. These “investment firms and hedge funds” have a legal right and a responsibility to the people whose money they invested.

It is easy to criticize the Administration’s approach and say what they should not have done. It is harder (and more responsible) to say what you would have done instead, and to accept responsibility for the downsides of that choice. If you disagree with what the President did, I challenge you to recommend an alternate path. I will give you five options. To make it hard, please assume the probabilities listed:

  1. Withhold all additional taxpayer funds. (99% chance Chrysler liquidates by July 1)
  2. Tell the negotiating team to set a goal (a viable firm without permanent taxpayer subsidies) and a limit on taxpayer funds, and then stay out of the negotiations among private parties. (70% chance Chrysler liquidates by January 1 because the Chapter 11 process drags on and Chrysler’s sales plummet)
  3. Do what the Obama team did, but don’t use the section 363 process to jam creditors and don’t publicly bash those creditors when they dissented. (50% chance Chrysler liquidates by January 1)
  4. Tell the negotiating team to lead /”help” the negotiations, but strictly instruct them not to pursue non-taxpayer goals (like fuel efficiency), and not to favor UAW over creditors. Use the section 363 process if necessary to jam an objecting party, but don’t publicly bash them. (30% chance Chrysler liquidates by January 1)
  5. Do what the Obama team did, and be willing to add more funds if necessary to keep Chrysler alive. (15% chance Chrysler liquidates by January 1)

Also, please assume that a Chrysler liquidation increases the chance of a GM liquidation by 10-20% through a chain reaction of parts suppliers failing.

These probabilities are my somewhat-wild guesses. If you find yourself arguing with me in the comments about the probabilities, you are missing the point of the exercise. Please assume these probabilities (even if you disagree with them) and tell us what you would do, not just what you would not do.

I will start the bidding by choosing (B).