Saturday, November 14, 2009

U.S. To Be More Selective With Automakers

Automakers can expect the U.S. government to be conscientious to its multibillion-dollar stake in their businesses next year and selective in its efforts to reform the industry.

Government emphasis has varied from bailouts and bankruptcy to investment oversight and innovation, with congressional and White House demands for greater fuel-efficiency driving the agenda.

“There’s not much appetite for further support to the auto industry,” U.S. Representative Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat whose district comprises Chrysler headquarters, told Reuters in an interview. “You can still make the case for strategic (help) but you have to make it in a more thoughtful way.”

Taxpayers own a majority stake in General Motors GM.UL and a 9 percent interest in Chrysler after government-led salvages tallying more than $64 billion. The administration pledges a hands-off approach as the companies seek out to restructure themselves in an improving but still uncertain sales market.

“Any huge shareholder, like in the case of General Motors, inevitably is going to keep an eye on things,” Jerry York, a former Detroit executive and industry adviser, told the Reuters Autos Summit this week. “As long as things are going reasonably well, they’ll likely stay in the background.”

The ability of GM and Chrysler to stand on their own and repay at least some of the massive loans hinges on a rebound in American housing and employment, industry executives and consultants say.

Mike Jackson, chief executive of the leading U.S. auto retailer AutoNation Inc (AN.N), highly praised the government rescue of automakers this year. But he stressed policymakers and Congress need to think more broadly in upcoming applications.

He said the brittle auto industry “cannot handle” swings in gasoline prices and called cost volatility “the killer.”

Jackson, York and others have recommended a novel but politically unpalatable approach — a regular, predictable increase in federal gasoline taxes. This would push consumers enduringly towards the most fuel-efficient technologies and give producers the proper lead time to roll them out.

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