Auto bailout: $15B just the beginning

Even if Congress approves a bailout for the Big Three, experts say the CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler will be back on Capitol Hill asking for more money in 2009.

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By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- One thing is certain about the proposed auto industry bailout: it's going to end up being more expensive than the $15 billion Congress and the White House are hoping to approve for Detroit in the next few days.

In fact, it's likely to be more costly than the $34 billion that the Big Three were asking for last week.

Congressional leaders and the White House were working Tuesday to finalize details of a $15 billion loan designed to get the two most troubled automakers, General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and Chrysler LLC, through March without running out of cash.

Still, that is only seen as a stopgap measure to keep the companies rolling until the new Congress and the Obama administration can consider the full request from GM, Chrysler and Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500) early next year.

And even the automakers admit that they are going to need a lot more than $34 billion to remain viable.

Executives of all three companies have said they still hope to get at least $20 billion of the $25 billion in federal loans over the next three years from the Energy Department. Those loans have already been approved to help them build more fuel efficient vehicles.

The $15 billion being considered for the current bailout would come out of that $25 billion. Democrats in Congress plan on replenishing those funds early next year.

But Big Three executives are already on record as wanting to see Congress boost the size of the Energy Department loans to $50 billion sometime next year.

Each of the automakers also hope to have their finance operations tap into the $700 billion set aside by Congress in October to help Wall Street firms and banks.

GMAC, the finance arm owned 49% by GM, has filed to become a bank holding company, while Ford and Chrysler have filed to become industrial loan companies, which could also open up that source of funds.

Those funds would go to help provide credit to dealerships and consumers that the automakers say they need to support sales. The amount of money to be requested from those funds is not yet known.

The automakers are also seeking help from the Canadian government, where all three operate plants. A report in the Hamilton Spectator estimates that the U.S. automakers are seeking more than $5 billion in loans from the Canadian government. The U.S. automakers could not confirm this.

Automakers could be back for more $ in '09

But even all these additional sources of capital may not be enough to keep the industry out of bankruptcy.

The automakers came up with the $34 billion request based on expectations of a modest rebound in auto sales in December and the first quarter of 2009. If that doesn't materialize, the cost of saving the industry would certainly rise.

Last week, Moody's Economy.com economist Mark Zandi suggested during one of the auto bailout hearings on Capitol Hill that the Big Three could need between $75 billion to $125 billion over the next two years if they are to survive.

He predicted that even if the government approves the $34 billion loan package, the automakers would be back to Washington later in 2009 asking for additional help.

That's because he thinks U.S. auto sales will remain weak well into 2010, due to problems in the economy and the bubble in auto sales from earlier in the decade.

In his testimony, Zandi said he estimates the entire auto industry would have to shut down production for nearly a year to work off the excess cars and light trucks that were sold during the bubble years.

With that in mind, Zandi said in an interview this week that his estimates for how much cash the industry needs might be low since it doesn't account for the lower revenue the Big Three are likely to receive if consumers continue to shun more expensive SUVs and pickups in favor of smaller, cheaper car models with better fuel efficiency.

Other experts agree that coming up with the actual amount that will be needed to save Detroit is difficult, but that Zandi's $75 billion to $125 billion estimate is probably closer to reality than $34 billion.

"You have to wonder if the initial cost estimates are anywhere near what the final costs are going to be," said Bob Schnorbus, chief economist with J.D. Power & Associates. "It'll take terrific management skills to contain it to $34 billion."

J.D. Power & Associates has already cut forecasts several times and will soon issue another sharp reduction to its current 2009 industrywide U.S. sales forecast of 12.6 million cars and light trucks. The firm said its new forecast is expected to be closer to annual sales of 11 million.

That's well below the targets set by General Motors and Ford Motor when they submitted their turnaround plans to Congress last week.

GM estimated industrywide sales of just under 12 million cars and light trucks for 2009 while Ford predicted sales of just over 12 million. Each said their need for federal help would increase if sales fell short of those forecasts.

Chrysler presented a more conservative estimate of 11.1 million vehicles sold industrywide next year.

And the worse the sales outlook gets, the more costly it will become for the Big Three to adjust to the weaker sales environment by reducing capacity. The cost of buyouts tied to plant and dealership closings could easily be more than $1 billion, according to some industry experts.

"If you want to accelerate cost savings or dealership reductions or brand elimination, all that requires incremental cash in addition to what's being used in the ongoing operations," said Robert Schulz, senior auto credit analyst for Standard & Poor's. "It can be more expensive in the short run to better position yourself for the long run." To top of page

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