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GM: One Step Closer to Nationalization


Embattled automaker serves as a guinea pig for state owership.

The great modern American nationalization experiment is underway: General Motors (GM), once the largest automaker in the world, has become a sort of Frankenstein's monster for the US government.

Bloomberg reports the Obama Administration is stepping up pressure on management, unions and creditors to make further concessions, and is considering taking a sizable equity position in the once-proud Detroit firm. The move, which would swap out some of the outstanding $13.4 billion in government loans for stock in a new, slimmed-down, cleaned-up version of GM, is the latest in a series of steps toward outright nationalization.

Analysts say the swap would diminish the rights of creditors, to whom the company offered around 90% ownership in a recent restructuring plan - a plan rejected by government officials. Under the Obama Administration's preferred tact of temporary state ownership, employees owed pension benefits would end up faring better than bondholders.

The government aims to take an ownership interest in GM, then quickly use the cover of bankruptcy courts to hack off the 'bad' parts of the firm. With a fresh start, free of legacy obligations and under performing divisions, Washington says it would quickly divest of it's stake and let the restructuring process continue.

We've by now become almost numb to government-led bailouts of failed companies, most notably American International Group (AIG), Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE). The details are almost an afterthought, as the complexity of each scenario renders casual analysis almost a waste of time. The GM situation, however, could be a blueprint for future intrusion of the federal government into private enterprise.

Secured lenders, as is the government in the case of GM, often prefer a bankruptcy filing when companies get into trouble since it can enable the quickest repayment of their loans in full. Unsecured creditors and equity owners are left holding the bag.

The Bush Administration before him and now Obama have set a precedent: Emergency, secured loans are a likely precursor to state ownership. Notably, the huge bailouts of Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC) were executed through portfolio guarantees and capital injections, not secured loans to the company itself. Not yet, anyway.

Despite efforts on the part of officials to play down the government's role in running GM, or AIG, or Citigroup, or Bank of America, we have entered an economic reality where business success, rather than relying on vision, strategy and good practices, is becoming increasingly reliant on political acumen.

By adding layers of red tape and palm-greasing to our already politicized economy, we move closer and closer to an economic system directed not by the collective will of the many, but rather one controlled by an ever-shrinking group of power brokers and political puppeteers.

This, despite loud proclamations of an impending return to economic vibrancy, is not a welcome development.
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