Fiat aims to be auto power

The Associated PressMay 5, 2009 

  • The Chrysler crisis

    Chrysler, trying to sell most of its assets to a company controlled by Italian automaker Fiat, said 35 to 40 dealers are closing a month as a result of low sales.

    About 400, or 10 percent, of the automaker's retailers have shut in the past year, Peter Grady, head of dealership development for Chrysler, testified in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

    Chrysler is seeking to pay its dealers $753 million for incentives owed to them prior to last week's bankruptcy filing and for incentives that may be needed after the filing

    On Monday, the judge overseeing Chrysler's bankruptcy case said the automaker can use $4.5 billion in government loans for financing while it works toward a sale of the company's assets to Fiat. And, the president of the United Auto Workers said the union will not keep its 55 percent stake in the new Chrysler.

  • With just a month left to check off an almost insurmountable list of restructuring moves, General Motors' new CEO says it's still possible that the company can avoid following Chrysler into bankruptcy.

    But don't think Fritz Henderson, who took over the troubled automaker when Rick Wagoner was ousted by the Obama administration, is ignoring what's going on with Chrysler in front of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in New York.

    "Our preference is to accomplish our goals outside of the bankruptcy process," Henderson said Monday in an interview. "But if we're going to go through one, then we're going to learn from Chrysler's experience."

    Hendersonalso said a counteroffer from the company's bondholders made last week is unacceptable because it doesn't meet requirements imposed by the government.

    A key issue for GM is getting 90 percent of its bondholders to accept a debt-exchange offer. GM is offering them a 10 percent stake in the company if they give up $27 billion in unsecured debt, but the bondholders have counter offered seeking a 58 percent ownership stake.

    GM has been living on $15.4 billion in U.S. government . The nation's largest automaker faces a June 1 government deadline to finish restructuring or be forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Detroit automaker lost $30.9 billion last year.

    To finish, it must cut its bond debt, cut labor costs and thin itself down to the point where the government believes it can be competitive.

    GM said last week it would soon announce six more factory closures in North America as part of the restructuring, but it did not identify them.

— Fiat is trying to build a global automaking powerhouse from parts scavenged from broken-down General Motors and Chrysler.

The Italian automaker struck a deal last week that could eventually give it a controlling interest in Chrysler, but its ambitions are bigger: Now it is negotiating to buy GM's main European unit, including the Opel and Vauxhall brands.

Fiat Group CEO Sergio Marchionne's plan is for Fiat to spin off the resulting automaker, which he said would be big enough to compete with the mightiest of car companies, with capacity to turn out about 5.5 million vehicles a year.

Fiat could become the fifth- or sixth-largest automaker in the world if it can complete its deals with Chrysler and GM, said Michael Robinet, vice president of global vehicle forecasts for CSM Worldwide, an industry consulting firm in Northville, Mich.

Currently, Fiat is considered a smaller, regional player, ranking 10th worldwide in cars and trucks produced.

Fiat's aim eventually is to become the world's No. 2 automaker, behind Japan's Toyota, according to Germany's economics minister, who met with Marchionne on Monday in Berlin.

The plan is audacious, not the least because Marchionne is hoping to execute it without putting down a cent. Fiat hopes to take advantage of the crisis in the auto industry by obtaining billions in loan guarantees from the U.S., Canada and various European governments.

"We're in the middle of an automotive yard sale," Robinet said.

Fiat's deal to take a big piece of Chrysler could not only save Chrysler, it would give Fiat access to the huge North American market.

And by buying GM's main European operations, Fiat could cut its production and development costs through economies of scale and gain expertise in building midsize and larger cars. Fiat, the maker of Fiats, Alfa Romeos and Ferraris, specializes in small cars.

Saving jobs

Marchionne made the rounds in Berlin on Monday, seeking to persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her economics and finance ministers that Fiat can save many of the 25,000 jobs at Germany's Opel, not to mention its supplier network. GM employs about 54,000 in Europe, including at Sweden's Saab and Britain's Vauxhall. It is not clear whether Saab would be part of a deal with Fiat.

Max Warburton, a Sanford C. Bernstein auto analyst, questioned whether a collection of loss-making auto companies can generate cash, noting that Fiat's auto business posts a profit only because of its Brazil operations. But the really big question is: Where will the capital come from for the new company?

Warburton suggested that Fiat will need to sell off its "jewel assets," CNH agricultural and construction vehicles and Iveco trucks. Marchionne has ruled that out.

In Germany, Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said Fiat estimated its short-term financing needs in Europe -- stemming from GM's debts and pension obligations -- at $6.6 billion to $9.3 billion, which could be covered by loan guarantees from various governments.

"Fiat wants to get into this deal without debts of its own," Guttenberg said.

GM, for its part, has been trying to find investors to help stave off collapse.

"We are talking to them, amongst other parties. Not solely Fiat, but several parties who have an interest in making investment in our European business," GM CEO Fritz Henderson said in an interview Monday.

Questions about Opel

Though analysts see advantages in a Fiat-Chrysler combination, there is much more skepticism among industry experts and unions in Italy and Germany about the wisdom of a play for Opel. German unions are worried about jobs and sour about the $2 billion that Fiat walked away with when a previous partnership with GM was dissolved.

Asked what the plan might mean in terms of job losses or plant closings, Guttenberg said Marchionne "hasn't offered any specific numbers yet, but he described them as not being too dramatic."

In a note to investors, Warburton, the industry analyst, said an Opel deal "makes sense if it can be made to function."

"We remain unconvinced that Fiat has the management depth to pull off this very ambitious task," Warburton said, "although we acknowledge that the company clearly keeps its talent obscured."

But Adam Jonas, auto analyst with Morgan Stanley, said if anyone can pull off such a spectacular gambit, it is Marchionne.

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