Bail Out Entrepreneurs, Not Big Auto

So, the Auto Bailout bombed in the Senate. Good. (Never thought I’d be writing about it in Venture Files . . . but then, I never imagined it might affect entrepreneurs — including me — directly.) It’s an intriguing tale of desperation, fear tactics, and ironyLa-192-car-pileup2003.jpg.

Desperation because the auto industry leaders are out of options, and doing everything they can to avoid the only solution that makes sense: filing for Chapter 11 protection. (I used the word “˜protection,’ rather than “˜bankruptcy’ because it’s exactly that — a means of legally keeping at bay those who might otherwise come after you for moneys owed.) I’ve been through it with one of my startups, and I’ve written about it here.

Fear tactics because the auto industry leaders would have us believe that the world will end if they file for Ch. 11. In fact, it makes survival possible. It enabled the airline industry to survive. So why would the industry leaders oppose it? It wipes all the existing stakeholders clean — all stockholders, creditors, pension plans, and — most important of all, the unions. And it will wipe out industry leaders’ individual stockholdings . . . and probably cost many of them their jobs.

But it’s the only solution. Lending the big automakers money to make payrolls is a short-term fix at best. There’s nothing they can do in the next six or even 12 months to turn their battleships around. I get as sentimental as anyone about GTOs of the past, but the model is broken, and dead. It’s time to clean house, start over. I feel for the folks who will lose jobs, but sorry — your management screwed up . . . and they’ve been doing it for decades. Instead of spending on R&D for new technologies, Big Auto spent on lobbyists to get relaxed efficiency and emissions standards.

It’s not about casting blame, or punishing anyone. It’s about survival. The crushing debt burden, inflated wages, and inefficient manufacturing infrastructure will never enable a US auto maker to return to profitability, even if it had a next-generation car ready to go. Unions are an antiquated and unnecessary burden, a throwback to times when bosses literally beat employees to make them more productive. The tech industry works fine without them (although there were several attempts to unionize them over the decades). More to the point: Foreign automakers have set up shop in the US without them.

I wonder if auto workers were given a choice of losing their jobs or taking a comparable job at two-thirds of their current salary at an electric-vehicle plant, which would they choose?

Ironic. Because there’s already a fully approved $25,000,000,000 in loans available to car makers. That’s right — $25B in direct low-interest loans (the Federal Funds Target Rate, currently at 1.0%). It’s the Department of Energy’s ATVM Loan Program (for Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing), and it’s fully approved by Congress, under Section 136 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. So why aren’t they taking advantage of it?

Because they’d rather keep operating as they’ve been for the past 50 years, than do what they should be doing. And they’re woefully unprepared to shift manufacturing to projects that meet the ATVM criteria.

So, despite the fact that, it’s all there, fully approved by the House and the Senate, with applications due by the end of this month, and decisions to be rendered by March 31, 2009, there’s that hitch: applicants have to have bona fide projects that meet the criteria of an Advanced Technology Vehicle. That could be anything from new high-efficiency gas-sippers to plug-in electrics. (You can read all about it in the Interim Final Rule.) The funding is not designed to resurrect Oldsmobiles.

For decades, Big Auto chose to avoid the transition to alternatives. Not that they didn’t do some work on them. (If you haven’t already, be sure and rent the documentary, “˜Who Killed the Electric Car?’ GM built one — the EV1 — people loved it, and every last one of them was destroyed . . . by GM.)

The automakers should be forced into bankruptcy. And rebuilt. Federal funding should be provided — but only to fund the new businesses emerging from Ch. 11.

If I seem personally peeved, I am. On behalf of my new company, I attended the DOE public meeting for the ATVM Loan Program in Washington DC last week. See, the loans are also available to makers of components for ATVs, which is what we are. I’m fairly confident we’d qualify for the program (although not in time for the year-end deadline, but no problem — there will be rolling application deadlines — and 90-day decisions — every quarter.)

But there are a couple of gotchas: 1) the bailout that just failed (thank God) was going to “˜steal’ $15B from the program (since the money was already approved); and 2) even though it will go forward, a subtle point came up in the DOE public meeting — once a ‘magic number’ of $7.5B targeted for bad debt (based on the committee’s analysis of aggregate applicants), after which the loan program is ended. That means, say, GM receives a $4B loan to set up a plug-in hybrid plant, but the committee calculates a 50% probability that GM won’t be able to repay the loan. Then $5.5B is left for the others. You get the picture: the DOE might only end up lending a total of $15B — mostly to the big guys — based on a 50/50 chance that they won’t make good on the loans.

And us little guys — the entrepreneurs who should be getting the money for new technology — will be squeezed out. We were all there (at two separate meetings) at the DOE meeting last week — lots of technology companies developing radical new engine designs, patent-pending alloys with greater strength at a fraction of the weight, energy-efficient components, electric alternatives (including Tesla Motors). Oh, and a few representatives of Ford, GM, and Daimler, and the Japanese car contingent.

And although the Interim Final Rule makes no provision for ensuring that small companies get a piece of the pie, there is still hope: Section 136 also provides for grants, but the lawmakers haven’t gotten around to defining that part. Let’s hope the new Administration sees the wisdom in targeting that money for those who will put it to best use — the entrepreneurs. (They’re ahead of us in the UK on this one.)

Still, the (sitting) President is pushing the rescue, this time from the bank bailout fund. I reiterate: ‘Oh, Thank Heaven . . . for Chapter 11!’