Kudos to the Wall Street Journal for laying out in an easily digested manner the complicit pay-to-play scenario that was the Obama Auto Bailout of 2009 – among the most blatant abuse of taxpayer dollars in recent memory.
Sherk and Zywicki: Obama's United Auto Workers Bailout
If the administration treated the UAW in the manner required by bankruptcy law, it could have saved U.S. taxpayers $26.5 billion.
President Obama touts the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler as one of the signature successes of his administration. He argues that the estimated $23 billion the taxpayers lost was worth paying to avoid massive job losses. However, our research finds that the president could have both kept the auto makers running and avoided losing money.
The preferential treatment given to the United Auto Workers accounts for the American taxpayers' entire losses from the bailout. Had the UAW received normal treatment in standard bankruptcy proceedings, the Treasury would have recouped its entire investment. Three irregularities in the bankruptcy case resulted in a windfall to the UAW.
First, GM and Chrysler owed billions of dollars to the union's Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) when they went bankrupt. The union and the auto makers created VEBA in 2007 to assume responsibility for the UAW's generous retiree health benefits. The benefits allowed UAW members to retire in their mid-50s with minimal out-of-pocket health-care expenses for the rest of their lives. GM owed $20.6 billion and Chrysler owed $8 billion to VEBA as unsecured claims.
A bedrock principle of bankruptcy law is that creditors with similar claims priority receive equal treatment. If you owe $1,000 each on two credit cards, in bankruptcy you cannot choose to pay $900 to Citi and only $200 to Chase. Each of the creditors is entitled to an equal percentage recovery.
In the auto bankruptcies, however, the administration gave the unsecured claims of VEBA much higher priority than those of other unsecured creditors, such as suppliers and unsecured bondholders.
At the time of bankruptcy, GM owed these unsecured creditors $29.9 billion, for which they received 10% of the stock of "new" GM, which went public in November 2010, and warrants to purchase 15% more at preferred prices. Yet VEBA got 17.5% of new GM and $9 billion in preferred stock and debt obligations. Based on GM's current stock price, VEBA collected assets worth $17.8 billion—$12.2 billion more than if the administration had treated it like the other unsecured creditors.
The same thing happened at Chrysler, only to a greater degree. Chrysler's junior creditors recovered none of their $7 billion in claims. In normal bankruptcy proceedings, the UAW would have also collected nothing. Instead it walked away owning almost half of new Chrysler and a $4.6 billion promissory note earning 9% interest. Had the stock and note gone to the Treasury instead, the bailout would have cost taxpayers $9.2 billion less.
The administration also insulated the UAW from most of the sacrifices that unions usually make in bankruptcy—at taxpayer expense. Section 1113 of the Bankruptcy Code enables reorganizing companies to improve their post-bankruptcy competitiveness by renegotiating union contracts to competitive rates. In April, for example, American Airlines proposed using this power to bring down its labor costs to the level of its rivals, just as Delta and United had in earlier bankruptcy filings.
The administration decided not to do this at GM. The UAW did accept sharp pay cuts for new hires. But they only made modest concessions for their existing members, like eliminating the much-maligned Jobs Bank that paid workers even when they were laid off.
Read More: The Wall Street Journal