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Bailout Blues?

Back in the summer, I was at a cookout and talking to a friend of mine who is very enthusiastic about outdoor activities like camping, hunting, and fishing. My friend drives a big honkin' manly-man's Chevy Silverado 4x4 truck. He commented that while he was very happy with his Silverado, he was so incensed with the federal bailouts of GM and Chrysler that he would never again buy anything built by (as he called it) "Government Motors."

Over the next several months, I heard similar declarations from a few others I crossed paths with. They were absolutely, positively never--never, I say!--going to buy anything from one of the bailed-out automakers. On the other hand, I don't recall anyone openly expressing support for the GM or Chrysler bailouts, or any great desire to get new wheels from the newly nationalized manufacturers.

I happen to live in one of Ohio's more conservative counties, so I wasn't surprised to hear people talking like that. Because my hometown is what it is, politically speaking, I figured that what I was encountering was not necessarily a representative sample of opinion across the state, or across the country.

Six months later, I'm not so sure it wasn't--and here's why.

The auto manufacturers have released 2009 year-end U.S. sales figures, and the results (as reported at The Truth About Cars and various business news sites) are grim. Overall, 2009 had the lowest new car sales in 27 years, about 21% less than 2008, which wasn't exactly a banner year.

When you break it down by manufacturer, it looks like this:

What jumps out at me is how the manufacturers formerly known as the "Big Three" fared. Ford lost sales, but had less of a decline than most other manufacturers, while GM and Chrysler took a serious pounding. What does this have to do with the bailouts? Well, there's at least a correlation. Ford, which did relatively well, never asked for a government bailout; GM and Chrysler took the bailouts, and had awful sales.

Of course, correlation does not always indicate causation, and there's a little bit of a chicken/egg issue here. Even before the bailouts, Ford was in much better financial shape than the rest of Detroit. It has the strongest product line of the domestic auto companies, and has done a stellar job of improving its assembly quality and reliability from where it was in the "Found On Road Dead" era of the 1970s. In comparison, GM has been sort of hit-and-miss in recent years, and Chrysler's passenger car lineup is a study in deadly dull mediocrity. Neither of the bailed-out companies has had the chance to roll out much in the way of new product yet, so it's at least arguable that their steep 2009 sales decline came because these companies had unappealing products, causing them to lose money, which led them to clamor for a bailout, and not because their customers rebelled against the bailout after the fact.

I do not doubt, however, that some part of GM's and Chrysler's decline is attributable to hostility to their status as recipients of government money. The bailouts have never been popular with the voters. In a nation of 300 million people, my outdoorsman friend is certainly not the only one who has resolved to conform his shopping patterns to his distaste for current industrial policy. But are there enough people like that to make a meaningful difference in the marketplace? There is at least anecdotal evidence that there are. Some Ford dealers are openly touting the fact that their manufacturer isn't on the government dole, and if Ford's December sales (up 33% over December 2008 while GM's sales for the month fell by 6% and Chrysler's by 4%) are any indication, that line of argument may be having some effect.

This leads me to something that is potentially a huge problem for GM and Chrysler, and one I fear no one is really thinking about: by taking enormous sums of government money through a politically unpopular program, have GM and Chrysler fatally poisoned their brand equities? If there are enough people like my outdoorsman friend out there, and if they remain adamant in their refusal to buy any GM or Chrysler product ("You already got my money from the IRS!"), then it may not matter how cleverly the car czars and marketing mavens plan their turnaround strategies, or how green or stylish or advanced GM or Chrysler's new products are. The damage to the brand equity may be so bad that they will not be able to sell enough new cars to sustain the enterprise--at least, not without more government money to prop them up!

So let me throw the question open to you, the readers of Car Lust. You might not be a scientific sample in the strictest sense, but you live in many different places and have friends and neighbors I'll probably never meet. Are you more likely or less likely to buy a GM or Chrysler product because of the bailout? What about your friends and neighbors and family members? Are they expressing sentiments like I've heard--or the opposite? Hit the comments and let us know.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

Note from Chris: For obvious reasons, I'm relaxing the usual "No Politics" rule in the comments, with the caveat that commentary should focus on policy and not partisanship. Our other commenting guidelines are still in place--treat each other with respect and don't say anything you wouldn't say to somebody's face.

Okay: "The bailout was unethical, and I'll never buy a GM car."
Not Okay and Will Be Removed: "(Insert political figure) is a crook, and I'll tar and feather every (insert political party) I see."
Not Okay and Will Be Removed: "You're a (fascist/communist)!"

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That's an excellent question, Cookie. I have certainly heard many more people critical of the automaker bailouts than in support of it - actually, outside of people in the industry, I haven't heard of *anybody* that was particularly happy about the bailouts. But even so, looking at this data, I'm not sure how much of an effect we're seeing.

GM and Chrysler's drops are certainly disastrous - but look at the Japanese automakers. Despite benefiting from Cash for Clunkers, and despite having product lineups that are considered to be superior and more suited to the times than the out-of-touch American automakers - I'm clearly dealing in popular stereotypes here - Nissan, Toyota, Honda, and Mazda were all right around 20% down. GM's 30% down is certainly worse, but it's not so much worse that I'd put it on America turning their backs on the bailed-out automakers. That gap could be explainable by product mix, or an easing off of incentives, or that kind of thing. That's my completely unscientific opinion only of course.

And, after all that, I realized I forgot to answer your actual question.

Personally, I'm no less likely to buy a new GM vehicle that I was before, but that's perhaps not saying much. I've been a GM fan since I was a kid, but as with many Americans my experiences with a GM car (my Saturn SL2) has made me leery of returning to the fold. Even as GM's quality reputation improves, I think about my bad experience and compare it with my excellent experience with Hondas - I'm not convinced of the upside of experimenting with GM. The same is even more true of Chrysler. They have some cool cars, but for family transportation I'll probably stick with the brands that have treated me well.

But if I had the money for a Cadillac CTS-V Wagon - if such a wonderful beastie existed - I certainly wouldn't avoid it simply because of the bailout. If it's a car I want, I'll buy it - if not, I won't. For me it's more about the car than about external factors like that.

I will not buy a GM, period, unless and until the government ceases its ownership role. Government has no business owning businesses at all, let alone a major one. I feel quite comfortable predicting that their products will worsen; however, they can still stay price-competitive since they have the bottomless pit of taxpayer money to keep them afloat. They might even keep their sales up by the government mandating purchases of GM vehicles by other government agencies (either formally or through "incentives", otherwise known as extortion).

It is a bad, bad, bad idea.

It's plain that what people want right now are inexpensive small cars that don't suck. If you're in the market for a new car right now, you either don't have much money to throw around, or you aren't in the mood to part with as much of it.

We bought a Corolla last February because (1) Old Man Winter finally killed our Honda, (2) we got a really good deal on the Corolla - they were handing out $1500 rebates, which is unheard of for Toyota, and (3) they had a base trim car with window cranks that my wife, the primary driver, appreciates very much, so the price was right.

Chevy has the Cobalt, which IMO looks like it was made for Wal-Mart. Cheap hard plastic on the inside, "meh" styling on the outside. Chrysler has the Caliber, and I'll walk before I drive one of those. Ugly, clunky, and cheap. We already had a Ford Focus, and we weren't impressed with it and didn't want another one. So much for the Detroit Three's offering of inexpensive small cars.

The Corolla, on the other hand, had just been restyled for '09, and was as big as the Camry was 20 years ago, but with more power and better gas mileage.

My point, if I have one at all, is that the fact GM and Chrysler took bailout money doesn't enter into it. The cars stink; that's the only thing that matters. If they made a Chevy that met our requirements, we would have at least considered buying it, but they don't. Maybe next time. As a big caveat to automakers, I would say that the penalty for making shitty cars in our case is ten years of not seeing us again; that's how long it takes to run a car from shiny new to battered old beater in Upstate New York. Ten years is a long time.

To best answer the question, first let me describe where I live. I'm in Williamson County, Tennessee ( [link-www] ), where Wiki calls "The wealthiest county in America" (Though I seriously doubt that). It's so conservative and Republican here that we have ZERO Democrats in office. In 2004, 72% of us voted for Bush (EGAD!), 27% for Kerry, 1% for Nader. I have never voted for "W".

We're also the county immediately north of the failed Saturn/GM plant, and many of the employees there live in this county for the better school systems. And I feel for them. Unbelievably-stupid mistakes by GM management have repeatedly put them in serious concerns over the present and future well-beings of them and their families.

Most of the GM people admit the mistakes. And they can't deny that the Nissan plant is about 20 miles away, has always been non-union, and is frequently the most-productive auto plant in the USA. There are rumblings that Nissan is looking at the former Saturn plant for production capabilities.

Now, to answer the question, what I've heard from the local limbaugh parrots are that they will not buy anything from "Obama's Government Motors." He drives a Mercedes, btw. How American is that? Many of them here also rent Lexuses. Oh, our local Buick/Pontiac/GMC dealership is now an empty parking lot, for what that's worth.

I have never owned a Chrysler product, so the bailout does not affect me. I decided long ago that I'd never again own a GM because of their negative effect on me and my community. But notwithstanding the harm GM dealt me in 1987, I am livid at the new ad campaign they are putting on. Rather than thanking the American taxpayers for saving their careers (At least for a while) and promising to build a better vehicle, they shout, "Let The Best Car Win" (I think they already have). Then they promote their present line-up, the exact one that got them into their mess to start with. And have you seen the ad where the guy compares GM cars to Honda's self-propelled lawn mower? Frankly, I'd prefer the lawn mower, because it's easier to push than a GM.

I really want GM to succeed. America needs them. But I don't think they can survive doing business the way they are doing things at the present.

IF GM and Chrysler have fatally poisoned their brand equities by taking enormous sums of government money through a politically unpopular program, then only by being perceived as having been coerced or misled by the government into a politically unpopular program, by being perceived as a victim of the government, can they repair their brand equities. A tall order of business since many people perceived GM and Chrysler as being eager to accept these monies while Ford turned them down.

I think the decline at GM and Chrysler is attributable more to perception than politics. Take a bailout, consumers figure you're on your last legs. Nobody wants an orphaned vehicle. What's more, the financial failure of these companies only served to accentuate the shortcomings of their products. As a former Subaru owner, that brand's success this year comes as no surprise to me. Subarus have always been reliable and sturdy -- good value for the money, with a top-notch dealer network and excellent customer service. Currently I drive a 2005 Ford Mustang, and I'm proud have an American car in my garage. If that makes me jingoistic, so be it. Guess I'm one of those simple conservatives the media love to dismiss as "Limbaugh parrots." Regardless, I do hope that GM and Chrysler emerge from this era as stronger companies.

Abstract: I will be very likely to consider vehicles from post-bailout companies namely because the bailouts gave GM and Chrysler the opportunity to sell not-crap smaller cars.

More details:

Chevy: I'm excited by the Volt, Cruze, Orlando, Spark, Beat, Regal and even the new Aveo RS... I think they are actually cool and will be nifty and give competitors a run for the money... I am delighted to see them replace the Aveo (which was crap) the Cobalt (which was a very lovely rental car) and the HHR (which was also crap). I'm feel like all their small vehicles are going through a renaissance, and feel it was a very good decision to kill Saturn and Pontiac and ditch Saab. The only real bungle I feel they had was cross-platforming the equinox to GMC... So I see the bailout as "the thing that allowed GM to finish what it needed to do" Thus, if my current car dies sometime in 2013, I'll definitely be looking at GM small cars.

Chrysler: I feel like Chrysler got completely screwed over by Daimler. Daimler came in, bought Chrysler simply because it couldn't get Jeep without Chrysler, Stole all the Jeep technology, Shooed-away Mitsubishi, threw a year-old E-class platform as a bone, and then bolted leaving Chrysler in worse shape. Thus, the only remotely desirable cars were the 300 and it's twins (the aforementioned e-class) and Jeeps, and the rest was absolute crap (Caliber and twins, Sebring and twins). The Bailout for Chrysler basically upped the water of the barrel enough to make the merger with FIAT palatable instead of suicidal... and now FIAT is basically scrapping all of Chrysler's small cars and replacing them with FIATs. So once again, I feel like the Bailout made it possible for Chrysler to do what needed to be done, and I think the FIATs are absolutely adorable... so I'll be interested in perusing Chrysler lots too.

In the meantime, I feel like most of the people going "never another GM/Chrysler" were truck owners who already had respective trucks and know in the back of their mind that a Ford truck really won't be that different. Meanwhile, the cars smaller than the Malibu/300 were such crap that the only people who had them managed to get absolute steals and everyone else had an aversion to American small cars or a love for imports (at which point the bailout provides another reason to hate on them).

Frankly, I am looking tentatively forward to what GM and Chrysler will have on the lots two years from now. I say tentative because GM and Chrysler are just now wrapping concept-reveals at car-shows, and there is still a lot of chances for things to get canceled or bungled with bad option/pricing/styling decisions between now and then. But their earnestness and transparent realization that their previous small vehicle fleets were crap gives me hope.

Meanwhile, Ford has not been sleeping in the small car department: The awesome Fiesta is going to be here late this year, and the new global Focus is just around the corner to replace it's very aged first-gen sister... and Toyota, Honda, Mini, and Hyundai/Kia base most of their existence on smaller vehicles and won't let market share slip easily. So I imagine the battles will be fierce and plan to follow them with interest.

Sully: "Guess I'm one of those simple conservatives the media love to dismiss as "Limbaugh parrots." Regardless, I do hope that GM and Chrysler emerge from this era as stronger companies."

Hopefully nobody here will denigrate you as a Limbaugh parrot - people have a right on this blog to hold whatever political opinion, hopefully we can keep this on the policies.

Regarding the hope that GM and Chrysler emerge as stronger companies - I think that's a really good way to look at it. Regardless of what your opinion was on whether the bailout should have happened, the taxpayers now have money invested. The scenario where those companies succeed - for jobs, for future industry, for repaying the loans, for making the taxpayers whole - is much preferable to the scenario where they fail.

Call me a cynic (who ...me? :) ) but I predict they guys griping the most about GM and Chrysler will be back in their natural environments as soon as Chevy launches a new pickup aided by:
-Give-away financing
-Dale Junior ads and a NASCAR tie-in
-Free beer at your local Chevy dealer.

Or when they get a chance at a "steal" deal from either make.

People have very short memories. And more to the point, they'll forget about their high minded "I'm NEVER gonna...(fill in the blank)" once they percieve a "free lunch" in the form of a good car deal, sexy new body style or political promise.

John B: "People have very short memories. And more to the point, they'll forget about their high minded "I'm NEVER gonna...(fill in the blank)" once they percieve a "free lunch" in the form of a good car deal, sexy new body style or political promise."

I agree - and I think this cuts across political lines and across issues. How many people who were beating the Buy American drum in the 1980s buy imported consumer goods?

Here's how I would think about it - I'd think about it in terms of an Ocean of Indifference, the level of which now is quite low, people being engaged with the bailout issue. However, the Ocean of Indifference inevitably rises over time as people have short memories and move on to other issues. There are a lot of people who have a moderate level of dissatisfaction (a low altitude) now who will be swamped by indifference in a few years, and there are some people who have a high level of dissatisfaction (a high altitude) who will never be indifferent.

But, without further negative stimuli, I think the number of people who are enough affected by the bailout to alter their purchasing behavior will diminish over time.

I'm so enamored by this laughably unscientific theory that I now want to illustrate it. I'll be right back.

Chrysler's fading into irrelevancy is sad, but it's GM's almost cocky way of demonstrating - on a daily basis - that they learned absolutely nothing from the last year, that really inceses me.

Saturn would have been a brilliant opportunity to focus on bringing their smaller, European Opels and Vauxhals to the States, but they botched that sale to Penske.

Pontiac was starting to live up to it's once-meaningful performance vibe with the more-popular-than-the-Miata Solstice and best-they've-made-in-years G8. GM just threw two of their best products into the trash.

Saab was methodically dumbed down to fit with GM's dullard business plan and then they botched that sale three times. Technology that Saab had innovated was integrated into GM fleet models and then Saab was just ignored for a decade. When it was time to sell Saab, GM set deadlines they knew they couldn't meet.

To think they tried to sell Opel as well! No fewer than THREE of their latest, most critically acclaimed models are based on the same Opel Insignia! Morons!

An intelligent move would have been to take their best and axe the rest. Pontiac could offer only the G8 and Solstice. Saturn would offer the Astra. GMC would be rolled back into Chevy and we could buy a Silverado Sierra HD Denali that was "Professional Grade." Chevrolet could offer a Malibu styled after the popular Opel Insignia and make it available with a wide variety of trim levels to suit anyone looking for a basic, front wheel drive sedan to a twin turbo, all whee drive, V6 grand tourer. And they'd still have the Camaro, Corvette, and Cadillac!

They got all that money, only a fraction of which was technically a loan they would pay back, and still closed plants and dealerships. They costs tens of thousands of jobs and filed bankruptcy anyway in the end.

People still can't afford to make their mortgage payments to GMAC/Ditech, but you don't see those people getting any slack. It gets to the point where they just lose their home and are financially screwed for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, GM makes flagrantly irresponsible business decisions on a regular basis for decades and they are somehow more worthy of support?

They can make all the pretty cars they want. I don't care if they're nicer than BMW or Mercedes. It's no longer about the perceieved quality of their products. Today, GM represents greed, irresponsibility, and the deaf ear our "representatives" in Washington turn to the very people who sign their paychecks. GM evokes thoughts of everything that is wrong with the country today.

I don't subscribe to the new car every three years mentality that has people keeping up with the Joneses, so I'll just continue to drive my 19 year old Mitsubishi (everything still works) and maybe wait and see how the used market evolves in the next few years.

Okay - through the magic of MS Paint, I have illustrated my theory of the Ocean of Indifference. Basically, my theory is that immediately after an event, when passions are running high, the Ocean of Indifference is low. But over time, unless it's a recurring event and passions keep getting re-stoked, the Ocean of Indifference inevitably rises. Those who aren't particularly passionate sink below the waterline first; others who care a lot stay dry.

In this case, the people on the mountain are the people who wouldn't buy a GM or Chrysler car because of the bailout. I know these graphics are highly sophisticated - please try to keep up.

Here's figure 1 - today, when passions still run high.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hafner/4274010137/sizes/o/

As you can see, the Ocean of Indifference is fairly low, and there are relatively many people who people who care enough about this issue to not be indifferent. There are more people who casually care about the issue than who passionately care about it.

Here's figure 2 - in 3-5 years, when some people have forgotten, but those who had a moderate level of passion are still engaged.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hafner/4274755282/sizes/o/

Here's figure 3 - in 10 years, when the people who passionately care are still above the waterline but when the majority has moved on.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hafner/4274755288/sizes/o/

I can assure you all that the quality of thought that went into this is on a par with the level of effort that went into the artwork.

By the way, this isn't meant to be judging either the people far up the mountain (very passionate) or the people well down the mountain or underwater from the start. I've been all over this mountain depending on the issue. But I'm definitely cynical about the popular lifespan of any issue that isn't continually repeated.

This also shouldn't be construed as saying that GM and Chrysler will be fine. Those companies can't afford to give up *any* of their prospective customers, and even if resentment begins to fade in a few years, will that be soon enough for them to survive? And even if everything was equal, well, GM and Chrysler weren't winning a lot of new customers even before the bailout.

I'm trying to think of an anologous case, and the best I can do is Audi - Audi was nearly dead in the early 1990s after the (ridiculous) unintended acceleration furor, and the brand nearly left the U.S. After a few fallow years, the brand only really began to come back when it introduced desirable products - namely, the slick A4. It makes sense that only good product can save a major manufacturer that has taken a body blow.

But the Audi case is much different - Audi had a parent company in VW that could sustain it, and Audi was on such a smaller scale that it didn't need as many sales to sustain it as a company.

So - who knows? :-)

@TCG - Not only that, but the MPG numbers GM so gleefully touts are only possible with optional engine and transmission choices - at considerable extra cost. We're not talking about hybrids, just engine and transmission options. Fuel efficiency is standard on Toyota's and Honda's compact and midsize sedans.

Thanks, Chris, for the hard work. Not only can the theory be applied to today's car industry, but it illustrates the effects of Sept. 11 as well. I'm not trying to start a new tangent here, just supporting your theory.

I'm all for buying cars made here in the USA, regardless of what name is on them. We're putting hard-working Americans to work designing, building, selling, and servicing them. Just look at all the new plants (Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, Nissan, Honda, KIA, Hyundai) that have opened or will open soon that are hiring Americans!

The future is in research and development, not resting on one's laurels. We need to look forward, not back. And we can't do that by comparing our cars to lawn mowers. We have to build a better car!

"Regardless of what your opinion was on whether the bailout should have happened, the taxpayers now have money invested. The scenario where those companies succeed - for jobs, for future industry, for repaying the loans, for making the taxpayers whole - is much preferable to the scenario where they fail."

THIS. That is, unless you're [deleted, partisan - but the respectful-to-others gist is "unless you're partisan and looking to use the situation for political gain."]

Sorry, SP - I'm trying to keep the conversation on the policy and away from the partisan back-and-forth.

For me, it comes down to product - not politics. It happens that Ford already was the only one of the one-time Big 3 making anything I would consider buying. That hasn't changed, and will only improve as Ford brings the "real" Focus and the Fiesta from Europe.

GM killed Saab, wasted a long-ago opportunity with Saturn, and dumped Pontiac which occasionally had promise. Chrysler has Jeep, period - and could ruin that as well.

Thanks for bringing up Jeep, TurboDave. How in the world has Jeep remained relevant despite being owned and managed for the last half-century by AMC and Chrysler, two of the least functional American automakers extant?

To me, Jeep is timeless. You'd have to try REAL hard to mess that up. I do like the updates, especially the 4-door Jeep.

I don't think you necessarily have to be making any kind of *partisan* political statement to not buy from a bailed-out company anymore than it is to buy from one -- to "make it succeed" for patriotic purposes or whatever. It's certainly a political issue just *because* the government is involved, and whether or not one believes in the Federal govt actually owning companies is a good idea will definitely drive one's decision to buy or not buy. It's philosophical, not necessarily partisan.

I probably ought to answer my own question.

I opposed the bailouts because I am opposed to the idea of the government taking money from some private persons and giving it to other private persons who have the political "juice" to make the transfer happen. I have clients who have productive businesses that employ 10 or 50 or maybe as many as 300 people. If any of them allowed their businesses to have the sort of dysfunctional corporate culture that GM has had for just about my entire lifespan, they'd have cratered long ago. None of them will ever have the political pull that one of the Big Three and its dealer network and its unions can put together. They could never get a bailout. It's fundamentally immoral to make them pay (in taxes) to prop up a better-connected but less-productive business.

I am the sort of person who will refuse to do business with an enterprise if that enterprise is associated with things I find objectionable. I won't buy gas from Citgo because it's owned by a repressive dictatorship; I gave up Samuel Adams beer after they ran a promotional campaign on New York radio that involved people committing simulated sex acts in a church vestibule. I would say that the bailouts make me less likely to buy from GM, but I'd already sworn them off long ago over quality control issues. As for Chrysler, if they came out with the tail-finned Forward Look sedan of my dreams tomorrow morning, the fact of the bailout would weigh heavily against me taking a look at it.

I appreciate all the answers posted here so far, and I rather like Chris' model of the "ocean of indifference"--I think it may explain a lot of things, not just car buying.

Here's a potentially interesting question that might be a natural jumping-off point from the post. For those who won't buy products from GM or Chrysler because they object to the bailout--would your opinion change if/when the companies pay back their loans and the shares get sold to private investors?

I guess it boils down to the question - does your unwillingness to buy last only as long as the government is involved, or is it permanent unwillingness that will persist based on the fact that the government was ever involved? Is it a temporary stain or a permanent one?

For starters, look back several years for when the automotive problems began. In the '50's, Dr. Deming preached quality control, which Detroit ignored. Japan listened to him and the rest is history. Now, fortunately, some of Detroit's quality has improved. As far as the bailouts are concerned,what everyone forgets is that every time the government gets involved in an entity, everything suffers. e.g. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AmTrak, Medicare, and SS. Little financial responsibility or oversight. I would still buy an American made vehicle, possibly a Corvette, because it is a one-of-a-kind, and no other maker can approach it. As for the rest of the offerings from GM or Chrysler, they are unimpressive. Some of my favorites are from Ford - the Crown Vic, the Grand Marquis, and the Town Car.

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