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As ‘viability’ date looms, Detroit seeks car czar

With less than a week to go before General Motors and Chrysler are due to submit viability plans to Congress, a power vacuum in Washington is raising questions about the next steps.

With less than a week to go before General Motors and Chrysler are due to submit long-term viability plans to Congress, a power vacuum in Washington is raising questions about the next steps in bailout of the auto industry.

Just before Christmas, when the Bush administration gave the two automakers a $17.4 billion lifeline to keep them in business, it gave them three months to come up with restructuring plans to turn their stalling companies into roadworthy businesses.

GM and Chrysler must submit the viability plans, which could include plant shutdowns and other changes, by Tuesday and put them into effect by March 31. If not, the government can demand repayment of the loans and put the companies into bankruptcy. (Ford, the third major U.S. automaker, is exempt from the deadline because it has not yet taken any government money.)

The final decision on whether the companies are viable will be made by a "car czar," who is yet to be appointed by President Barack Obama. The delay in appointing the official is raising concern that the Obama administration is uncertain about how to guide the nation's struggling auto industry.

“The problem the automakers are facing is the person who will oversee any federal assistance to the auto industry, overview their plans and have the final determination that they’re on the right track doesn’t exist,” said Aaron Bragman, an industry analyst at consultancy IHS Global Insight. “There’s no one to answer their questions; there’s no go-to guy to see if they’re barking up the right tree.”

A number of candidates have been mentioned as possible candidates for the job, including Steven Rattner, head of investment firm Quadrangle, racing legend and auto industry executive Roger Penske, and former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“This person is going to take their business plans and go over them with a fine-tooth comb, so will it be someone who has good understanding of the car industry, or someone more skilled in turnarounds or bankruptcies?” Bragman said. “Will they be focused on the business or manufacturing? They’ll have to know if they are looking at viable business plants, or a snow job.”

For their part, automakers say they intend to deliver their plans as required.

“Our sleeves are rolled up, we are working hard on the plan and we intend to hit the Feb. 17 deadline,” said Greg Martin, a GM spokesman in Washington. “This hasn’t diminished our determination to file on time, and we anticipate someone will be named.”

The delay in appointing a car czar could lead to a delay in the viability timetable, said David Cole, chairman of Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“I think the date for viability will slip because the government is still getting its oversight committee together,” Cole said. “They will have a significant learning process to go through, and to do the kind of due diligence and deep dive needed for this they’ll need a team of experts, but at this point they haven’t even appointed a car czar. So until they do that they can’t make difficult judgments on the car industry.”

In any case, the automakers’ ability to construct a workable viability plan looks dubious, according to Peter Morici, a professor of business at the University of Maryland. Under terms of the government loans, GM and Chrysler must show they are able to repay the government by demonstrating a “positive net present value,” meaning that their current spending is justified by expected future cash flows.

As part of their plans to move forward, the automakers are required to get their bondholders to accept equity in the place of some debt, a necessity that could lead to some difficult negotiations. The automakers also must bring their labor costs into line with Asian rivals doing business in the United States at a cheaper cost, such as Toyota and Honda.

“They may bring their costs in line with those of the Japanese, but how you calculate net present value depends on how you assume car sales will look in the future, and that’s unclear is this environment,” he said. “And you can do whatever you want with the net present value calculation. You have to assume something there — that’s accounting magic.”

In the meantime, car sales are in a deep freeze. U.S. sales last month fell 49 percent at General Motors, 40 percent at Ford and more than 50 percent at Chrysler.

“The bottom line is the automakers are going to need more money,” said Morici. “We haven’t seen car sales this low since back during the Second World War when they were not selling cars at all. It’s a combination of union contracts written 20 years ago and a bad economy, but those things have to change if there is going to be international competition.”