It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

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The latest news on the American auto industry brings back bad memories of Obama’s crooked crony nationalization of GM and Chrysler. We may well be seeing the setup of another round of bailouts in our dysfunctional domestic auto industry.

Start with a recent report on the nervousness in the industry during the run-up to the Federal Reserve decision on whether to move off the Fed’s seemingly endless zero-interest rate policy. The auto industry has been selling a lot of cars for cheap money; as the report notes, the apparent revival of the domestic auto industry has been facilitated by an explosion of auto loans. Earlier this year, the combined auto debt of US households hit an all-time high of over $1 trillion. The artificially low interest rates, along with the drop in gasoline taxes (brought about by the miracle of fracking) worked like Viagra to swell the American libido for new cars. The sales of domestic cars will likely exceed 17 million units for the year — a level not seen since 2001.

GM alone has recorded more than $25 billion in profits over the last five and a half years, and Chrysler has recorded 65 months of sales growth. All this is the aphrodisiacal effect of 0% interest rates on auto loans. One couple quoted in the report said they just bought their first car in 20 years, enticed by the 0% financing, though they chose a 1.95% rate loan because of a $3,000 rebate (which they apparently used to cover their down payment). This is a common perception now: the University of Michigan’s most recent household survey showed that 28% of the households surveyed pronounced it a great time to buy a car because of the low rates.

We may well be seeing the setup of another round of bailouts in our dysfunctional domestic auto industry.

Moreover, customers are using the low easy money to buy more expensive cars. This has all the signs of a government-induced easy credit asset bubble: buy expensive cars you otherwise can’t afford, since the government has made it clear that it prefers borrowers who recklessly spend to savers who prudently forego immediate gratification. That is about as sound an economic theory as it is a moral one! Can we spell “moral hazard,” boys and girls?

However, as the report observes, easy credit brings the risk of easy defaults. And that risk has been growing like a virus: in 2013, 10.3% of auto loan applications were declined as not being credit worthy; this year, the proportion was a risible 3.3% — a drop of two-thirds!

Easy money is translating into longer loans on more expensive vehicles. Last month, the average length of an auto loan was over 68 months — six months more than it was a decade ago — a rise of nearly 10%. The size of the average auto loan is now $29,000, an increase of 15% over five years, while the average down payment amount has only increased by 10%, meaning that the loans are backed by relatively smaller down payments.

Earlier this year, the combined auto debt of US households hit an all-time high of over $1 trillion.

More bubbly still is the fact that subprime auto loans — i.e., loans to people with poor credit histories — now constitute one-fifth of all auto loans, with the total balance outstanding on subprime loans rising over the past five years to a whopping $176 billion. Many of these loans, please note, were originated by finance companies with ties to the automakers. Subprime auto loans, like subprime mortgages before the mortgage meltdown, are being bundled as securities and sold on Wall Street to people who buy them because they have higher interest rates.

Sound familiar?

Now consider another recent report, this one about the latest capers of the UAW — the main instigators of the American auto industry’s problems, and the greatest beneficiaries of Obama’s corrupt socialization of GM and Chrysler. In that deal, the GM and Chrysler bondholders and the taxpayers were totally shafted in favor of the UAW. The only real concession was the institution of a two-tier wage scale, by which existing autoworkers kept their outrageous salaries, while new hires were to come in at a lower rate — roughly $9 an hour (or about $19,000 a year) less. This irks the new hires, who often do the same work as the “upper tier” workers.

And here it gets interesting. Recently, under Rick Snyder’s enlightened governorship, Michigan — historically a state totally dominated by the unions — chose to become a right-to-work state. Thus, many UAW members — formerly coerced into supporting a mob of rentseekers — are now free to leave the union plantation. Some of the newer members, tired of being at the low end of the scale because of the UAW contract, and tired of seeing the UAW mismanage their dues, are indicating that they intend to do just that.

Subprime auto loans, like subprime mortgages before the mortgage meltdown, are being bundled as securities and sold on Wall Street.

This has led the UAW to maneuver the weakest of the three domestic automakers, Chrysler — oops! Fiat Chrysler — into signing a new contract, a contract much more favorable to the UAW. Under this new deal, after some period of time (not yet revealed), the current cap of under $20 an hour for new hires will rise to about $25 an hour (that is, new autoworkers will start out at $52,000 a year!). The two-tier system will be phased out. In keeping with its past modus operandi, the UAW will get GM and Ford to agree to the sweetened contract.

The big picture is clear. The weakest of the domestic automakers, which has on two prior occasions had to be bailed out by the federal government, at massive costs to the taxpayer, has just agreed to go back to overpaying the unionized workforce. It can do this because of the “red hot” pace of sales.

But the hot sales are inflated by the Fed’s easy money policy, and the surge of subprime loans; and sooner or later, the Fed will have to start raising interest rates. Thus, sooner or later, the nation, which has been enduring a slow, painfully shallow recovery, will slide back into recession. Then we will see the inevitable plunge in car sales, with the domestic automakers again locked into ludicrously high wage rates.

The weakest of the domestic automakers, which has on two prior occasions had to be bailed out at massive costs to the taxpayer, has just agreed to go back to overpaying the unionized workforce.

And then it will be what that great American philosopher Yogi Berra — sadly departed, this September — called “Déjà vu all over again!” We will probably see Chrysler (and even GM) go into the red once more. We will hear, once more, about the piteous plight of the company, about how sad it would be for all those overpaid employees to be laid off, and about how “compassion” — always defined by the progressive elites as spending other people’s money to buy votes for the advocates of big government — dictates another bailout of a joke of a company.




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Start the Presses!

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Economic Policy

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Bernanke’s Thanks

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Among the myriad other disputes between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is a deep disagreement about Fed head Ben Bernanke. Obama loves Helicopter Ben, who is as prodigiously profligate monetarily as Obama is fiscally. Romney has already said publicly that (if elected) he would look to someone else when Bernanke’s term expires.

I have no doubt that’s a big reason why Bernanke announced a massive and open-ended new “QE3.” The Fed will pump $40 billion into the economy (buying mortgage-backed securities) every month until jobs are finally created. Given that the past massive injections of fed cash into the economy — you know, QE1 and QE2 — have not exactly created an employment explosion, the Fed may be buying those securities forever.

Short-term, the Fed’s announcement has resulted in a boost to the stock market. When you keep interest rates near zero, you basically drive capital into stocks. Raising the stock market higher is Bernanke’s gift to Obama, a big, wet, sloppy monetary kiss he hopes will get Obama reelected (and guarantee himself another term as well).

The bad thing, for everyone else, is that the value of the dollar will plummet downward. Both gold and oil prices therefore went up on the news.

The ratings agency Egan-Jones responded by dropping America’s credit rating from “AA” to “AA-“. In April, the agency had cut the rating from “AA+” to “AA.” In both downgrades, the agency cited concern about the rapidly growing deficit and declining dollar.

Egan-Jones VP Bill Hassiepen has said that the Fed’s “massive monetization” of debt is causing “sluggish to stagnant economic growth.” Hassiepen expects a rapid increase in the prices of energy and food, but, he wryly noted, “Unfortunately, we have a Federal Reserve that simply does not recognize the inflationary impact of food and energy prices any longer.”

No, what the Fed recognizes is that if Obama isn’t reelected, heads will roll, starting at the top. It will spend as much of our money as it feels it needs to do the job.




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Geothermal Currency

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