Who Deserves Credit for GM's Revival?

Bush? Obama? Rick Wagoner?

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Punctuating an astonishing turnaround, General Motors will offer its stock to the public today in what could be the biggest IPO in U.S. history. As investors line up to place their bets, it's striking to think that just 16 months ago the automakers was on its deathbed. With that in mind: who deserves credit for GM's revival? Business writers wrestle it out:

GM stock has become such a hot item that underwriters stopped taking orders for the IPO yesterday, which was more than seven times oversubscribed, according to report from Bloomberg. The shares will probably sell for closer to $33, one person familiar with the plans told Bloomberg.

  • Give the Credit to Ousted GM CEO Rick Wagoner, writes Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker:

Wagoner was not a perfect manager, by any means.... But, especially given the mess that Wagoner inherited when he took over, in 2000—and the inherent difficulty of running a company that had to pay pension and medical benefits to half a million retirees—he accomplished a tremendous amount during his eight-year tenure. He cut the workforce from three hundred and ninety thousand to two hundred and seventeen thousand. He built a hugely profitable business in China almost from scratch: a G.M. joint venture is the leading automaker in what is now the world’s largest automobile market... Under Wagoner’s watch, the productivity gap [between Toyota and GM] closed almost entirely.

Most important, Wagoner—along with his counterparts at Ford and Chrysler—was responsible for a historic agreement with the United Auto Workers. Under that contract, which was concluded in 2007, new hires at G.M. receive between fourteen and seventeen dollars an hour—instead of the twenty-eight to thirty-three dollars an hour that preëxisting employees get—and give up all rights to the traditional retiree benefit package. The 2007 deal also transferred all responsibility for paying for the health care of G.M.’s retirees to a special fund, administered by the U.A.W. It is hard to overstate the importance of that second provision. G.M. has five hundred and seventeen thousand retirees. Between 1993 and 2007, the company paid out a hundred and three billion dollars to those former workers—a burden unimaginable to its foreign competitors.

  • Give the Credit to Financial Engineering, writes Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times:
The GM turnaround is ultimately an act of financial engineering. While "financial engineering" has become an expletive of sorts, in this case, it is actually a good thing. Indeed, G.M.'s turnaround should become a case study for when and why the private equity and restructuring business can work...

Private equity firms make the hard decisions that current management can't - or won't - make. For all the credit that Mr. Wagoner may deserve for G.M.'s auto lineup, he wasn't able or willing to cull failing brands like Pontiac, for example, or get his arms around out-of-control legacy costs.That's when private equity makes sense.
  • Sorkin Overstates His Case, writes Felix Salmon at Reuters:

Bankruptcy, in theory and in practice, is essentially just a change of ownership. It’s not easy, and it carries non-negligible costs; [Steven] Rattner did a good job of minimizing those costs and therefore maximizing the value of the post-bankruptcy GM. But you don’t need PE honchos to orchestrate a bankruptcy filing and rid a company of its liabilities. And the main thing that Rattner did with GM was to lubricate the process with something over $50 billion in US taxpayer money, most of which went to pay off GM’s creditors, and much of which is unlikely to ever be repaid.

Rattner deserves praise for what he did. But so does Wagoner, and so do all the workers who have worked and who continue to work to actually make the cars that GM sells. The financial engineering might have been a necessary part of the turnaround process. But it wasn’t remotely sufficient.

  • Bush and Obama Deserve Credit, writes Jill Lawrence at Politics Daily:
Both Obama and Bush made short-term political sacrifices to save the economy. In approving $700 billion for Wall Street and auto bailouts, Bush went against his party and his ideology and lost standing with conservatives. Obama, who also followed economists' advice to pass an $814 billion stimulus package, reinforced the image of Democrats as the party of big government and risked the backlash that materialized at the polls this month.

Long-term, however, both presidents probably did their reputations some good. Bush writes that he told aides, "If we're really looking at another Great Depression, you can be damn sure I'm going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover." And if Obama and his party think they fared poorly by losing control of the House this year, imagine what 10.5 percent unemployment and utter Rustbelt devastation might have wrought -- in the election and in the history books.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.