As can be expected, the media really did a poor job of covering the GM IPO, consistently underestimating the total public cost of the bailout (e.g. no one is mentioning the $45 billion in tax-loss carryforwards GM was allowed to keep, against all precedent).
But the real cost of the handling of the GM bankruptcy is in 1) the terrible precedents it set in hammering secured creditors to the benefit of favored political allies of the Administration and 2) the loss of the opportunity to get billions of dollars in production assets out of the hands of the people who have be sub-optimizing them.
It was this latter issue I have focused the most on, particularly in this post where I argued for letting GM die. I said in part:
All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA. ...
Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier. The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation. When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment. Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not. Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one"¦ for a while.
But things change. Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet. DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you. When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one. The corporation is killing the value of its assets. Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture. In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.
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 2-3.
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.
The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan). A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc. In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.