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U.S. tries to broker sale of Chrysler’s loan arm

The Treasury Department is racing to engineer the sale of Chrysler's financing arm in a move the administration deems vital to saving the troubled automaker, but other federal agencies have not given their support, sources said.
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The Treasury Department is racing to engineer the sale of Chrysler's financing arm in a move the administration deems vital to saving the troubled automaker, but other federal agencies have not given their support, sources familiar with the matter said.

The Obama administration wants the nation's largest auto-financing company, GMAC, to buy Chrysler Financial, which is the primary source of lending for Chrysler dealerships and car buyers, industry officials said. But GMAC needs a new round of backing to buy its longtime rival, sources said.

Treasury officials have not yet obtained the agreement of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Reserve, sources said. The FDIC, created to backstop the banking industry, is balking out of concern that its resources would be drained in support of an auto manufacturer. And the Fed, which regulates banks, would need to grant a waiver from a long-standing rule that separates banking and commerce.

The dilemma over Chrysler Financial highlights the debate over the how far the government should stretch its financial rescue programs to help failing automakers. Despite reservations, regulators already anointed GMAC a bank holding company in December so it could access the federal bailout for financial companies and help preserve General Motors. Now regulators are being asked to preserve another storied American automaker.

Fate of manufacturer still uncertain
Even if a deal is reached for Chrysler Financial, the fate of the car manufacturer remains uncertain. The Obama administration's auto industry task force and Chrysler's lenders remained in a standoff yesterday. If an agreement with the lenders cannot be reached to forgive most of their $6.9 billion in loans to the company, Chrysler is set to file for bankruptcy by Thursday, sources said. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

But if Chrysler files for bankruptcy protection, keeping Chrysler Financial afloat still remains critical to the company's future, some industry and government officials said. A collapse of the financing arm could take down many dealers, which rely on short-term loans to buy the cars that sit on their lots. Chrysler sales could also grind to a halt as consumers struggle to get car loans. In the present environment, it would be difficult for dealers and customers to get financing from banks.

Dale Early, owner of Deerbrook Forest Chrysler and Jeep in Kingwood, Tex., said that close to 70 percent of the vehicles on his lot are financed through Chrysler Financial. When they are sold, he uses the proceeds to repay the loans.

"Chrysler Financial is vital to our success," Early said. "Chrysler needs a captive finance arm to survive."

Chrysler Financial is running out of money and has had to rely on $1.5 billion in loans from the federal government. The company also has a line of credit from several major banks, but the interest rate is so high that it cannot use the money profitably.

Furthermore, if Chrysler files for bankruptcy, a prospect that many officials say is highly likely this week, the banks can pull their lines of credit from Chrysler Financial.

GMAC, which has received $6 billion in government support, is in better shape, but without further government help, it does not have enough money to buy Chrysler Financial or to fund its loans even if a deal went through, government sources said.

A source familiar with the discussions cautioned that "this would be a very difficult acquisition to engineer and would require several pieces to fall into place."

Closing a merger between GMAC and Chrysler Financial would require an infusion of new bailout money from the Treasury. The company also needs access to an FDIC program that allows companies to borrow money at lower interest rates, sources said. And administration officials want the Fed to relax a rule that would restrict the amount of loans that the enlarged GMAC could make to Chrysler's customers and dealers because both firms are owned in part by the same company, Cerberus Capital Management.

Senior officials at both the FDIC and the Fed have only been involved in discussions about the plan for a few days, and there is concern among some officials that the process is moving too quickly, without adequate consideration of the available alternatives or the consequences of this approach.

The FDIC and the Federal Reserve both already have stretched their resources and their legal authority beyond any historical precedent. This latest plea for help, therefore, arrives at a time when help is harder to muster.

‘Serious questions’ about FDIC’s independence
The use of the FDIC's resources to rescue an auto manufacturer would be without precedent. If GMAC is unable to repay the loans guaranteed by the FDIC, the agency could be forced to raise the money through a special assessment on banks.

"This raises serious questions about the independence of the FDIC and whether it's appropriate for the agency to be pressured into participating in an auto bailout," said a source familiar with the matter.

The FDIC created the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program in October to help banks borrow money by promising to repay investors if the banks defaulted.

The guarantee lets banks borrow at interest rates several percentage points below prevailing market rates. The guarantee is even more valuable for companies such as GMAC that have struggled to find investors at any price. GMAC applied to participate in the program shortly after it became a bank holding company, but the FDIC so far has not granted the application.

For the Fed to make an exception to its rule separating banks and commercial enterprises would not be unprecedented. The Fed took such a step in its original decision to bring GMAC under the agency's umbrella and made similar moves involving other financial companies. GMAC has not formally asked the Fed for another exception to those rules.

GMAC declined to comment about a possible merger with Chrysler Financial. But officials acknowledged discussions with the Fed and the FDIC about the regulatory issues.

If Chrysler files for bankruptcy, the administration will push to have some of the assets auctioned off to the Italian automaker Fiat and will buy most of the rest, a source familiar with the negotiations said yesterday.

The government has already lent Chrysler more than $4 billion. If an agreement with Fiat can be reached by month's end, the Obama administration is prepared to lend as much as $6 billion more.

Staff writer Neil Irwin contributed to this report.