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Bush Bails Out Detroit

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Automakers get $17.4 billion to avoid collapse - for now.

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The holidays just got a bit brighter for Detroit.

This morning, President Bush authorized up to $17.4 billion in loans to rescue General Motors (GM) and Chrysler from imminent collapse. The 2 troubled automakers had asserted they'd run out of money by year's end without government assistance.

According to Bloomberg, the bailout money, which will come from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, will provide a 3-month window for the 2 firms to devise a restructuring plan to ensure their long-term viability. At the end of March 2009, the loans are callable if the government doesn't feel its demands have been met, forcing GM and Chrysler to immediately pay the money back.

Ford (F), which said it didn't need an emergency loan, wasn't included in the proposal.

In exchange for the cash, the government will receive warrants on non-voting stock, in addition to the right to block transactions of $100 million or more. Both companies must limit executive pay, give lawmakers access to their financial records, and are barred from issuing dividends until the debt is repaid. Debt must be slashed by two-thirds.

Detroit's powerful union lobby, the United Auto Workers, accepted concessions on retirement contributions and payouts for downtime.

Bush, in saving the US auto industry at a time when the economy can ill-afford further job losses, told CNN "I have abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system."

Rumors swirled in recent weeks about the possibility of an "orderly bankruptcy," after Congress failed to agree on terms for a bailout. The President said this morning that allowing the carmakers to collapse, given the ongoing financial turmoil and recession, would "not be a responsible course of action."

Evaluating the relative success of the industry's turnaround plans will largely be left up to the incoming Obama administration. The Wall Street Journal reports metrics for determining the firms' financial viability are "relatively lenient." And though the agreement doesn't specifically refer to a so-called "car czar," it does say the government must put someone in charge of ensuring the terms of the bailout are being met.

After months of pleading for money, GM CEO Rick Wagoner and Chrysler boss Robert Nardelli can finally return to Detroit with their pockets bulging. Payrolls can be met, vendors paid, and the books closed in January without a visit to bankruptcy court.

However, for 2 firms that seem inordinately adept at losing money -- and lots of it -- one would be hard-pressed to find too many people surprised if, before March, Wagoner and Nardelli are back on Capitol Hill explaining why they deserve a second chance.

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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