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Chrysler Debt Stalls Out

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Skeptical creditors halt refinancing effort.

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If you think it's hard to find a car loan these days, try borrowing $30 billion to finance a whole fleet.

Chrysler Financial, the finance unit of privately-held Chrysler LLC, spent the last month in intense negotiations to renew short-term debt such as that used for leases, retail car loans and loans to dealerships.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the company only managed to scrounge up $24 billion - just 80% of the $30 billion it wanted. And the money it did find was expensive: The debt cost Chrysler 1.10% to 2.25% more than the London interbank offered rate (or Libor), as compared to a spread of just 0.30% to 0.50% last year.

Chrysler will likely be forced to pass the additional expense on to customers, making cheap car loans increasingly hard to find.

JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Citigroup (C) and Royal Bank of Scotland worked on behalf of Chysler to renegotiate the loans, but in the end 2 major dissenters wouldn't budge: Bank of America (BAC) and Credit Agricole failed to renew a combined $3 billion in commitments.

Bank of America is already up to its eyeballs in lousy car debt, since it helped lead the refinancing effort for GMAC, finance arm of embattled General Motors (GM).

The financing struggle illustrates not only the lingering effects of the credit crunch, but the extent to which certain big industrial companies are, in Toddo's words, "financials in drag." Included in this list are fellow automaker Ford (F) and massive conglomerate General Electric (GE).

With cheap credit flowing through the financial system, management found it expedient to squeeze income out of balance sheets with aggressive money management. Whether it was tapping the now-collapsed auction-rate securities market or relying on sketchy consumer debt as a profit center (GMAC for GM and WMC Mortgage, a subprime lender, for GE), these so-called industrial behemoths relied heavily on their finance arms for profits.

For carmakers, sales have long depended on cheap and easy financing for would-be buyers. Now those loans are more expensive and harder to come by; revenues are sagging and losses are mounting.

These firms will have to find new ways to turn a profit, or figure out how to do it for less. Of course, that's something their customers are already being forced to do.
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