I think the incentives issue has been beaten to death pretty well, but there is another problem with bailout: They leave the productive assets of the failed company in essentially the same hands that failed to make good use of them previously. Sure, the management has changed, but a few guys at the top of these large companies don't really mean squat. To this point:
A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential. These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc. In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys. This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*. And DNA is very hard to change. Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there. Its just too much change in the
DNA. Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc. I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart. For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop. And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.
David Leonhart (via Carpe Diem) argues that this was exactly the long-term downside of the Chrysler bailout:
Barry Ritholtz "” who runs an equity research firm in New York and writes The Big Picture,
one of the best-read economics blogs "” is going to publish a book soon
making the case that the bailout actually helped cause the decline. The
book is called, "Bailout Nation." In it, Mr. Ritholtz sketches out an
intriguing alternative history of Chrysler and Detroit.
Chrysler had collapsed, he argues, vulture investors might have swooped
in and reconstituted the company as a smaller automaker less tied to
the failed strategies of Detroit's Big Three and their unions. "If
Chrysler goes belly up," he says, "it also might have forced some deep
introspection at Ford and G.M. and might have changed their attitude
toward fuel efficiency and manufacturing quality." Some of the
bailout's opponents "” from free-market conservatives to Senator Gary
Hart, then a rising Democrat "” were making similar arguments three
Instead, the bailout and import quotas fooled the
automakers into thinking they could keep doing business as usual. In
1980, Detroit sold about 80% of all new vehicles in this country.
Today, it sells just 45%.
Changing your DNA is tough. It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years. One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur. GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough. GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do. If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
So what if GM dies? Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation. Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value. Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.