GM posted record profits for 2011, just two years after the federal bailout.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The debate over the 2009 federal bailout of the U.S. auto industry heated up this week, as General Motors reported a record profit.
It's the first year the three major U.S. automakers are all profitable at the same time since 2004. And they continue to show more signs of a remarkable comeback.
That this has been an amazing comeback is indisputable. But the good news has reignited the fierce debate about whether or not the automakers -- which were reduced to begging Congress for a bailout in December of 2008 -- really needed to be saved by the government.
"I just gotta say "I told you so" to all the naysayers like Mitt and those Republican southern senators who tried to kill of the domestic auto industry," crowed Virg Bernero, the Democratic mayor of Lansing, Mich., in a tweet and Facebook posting Thursday morning.
But while the automakers are all posting strong results, taxpayers are still on the hook for billions of dollars. Taxpayers fell $1.3 billion short on the Chrysler bailout and are still waiting for $25.5 billion back on the GM deal. In total, the companies received about $60 billion between them.
And, particularly in the case of GM (Fortune 500), it seems unlikely the taxpayer will be made whole anytime soon. Treasury holds 500 million shares of GM stock, those represent about one third of the company and if sold at today's prices, they would be worth about $13 billion.,
The stock would need to roughly double in price for taxpayers to break even. Analysts predict a much more modest rise in the stock price in 2012.
Still, advocates of the bailout say the success of the companies is proof that the bailout worked. The hit to the economy would have been far worse than the $15 billion or so that the bailouts might end up costing taxpayers, considering the estimated 1.5 million additional job losses, the closure of GM, Chrysler and many of their suppliers and the shifting of much auto production overseas if the companies had failed.
"It would have been catastrophic," said Van Conway, CEO of Conway MacKenzie, a restructuring firm in Detroit. "The economy was teetering. The motivation was to stop the bleeding."
But critics say the strong results would have been even better if the federal government hadn't been involved in the turnaround.
In an appearance at the Detroit Economic Club Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said he opposed the bailouts of both the auto industry and Wall Street as "injurious to capitalism." He argued that the industry would still be doing well even without the bailout.
"Would the auto industry look differently than it does today? Yes it would. Would it still be alive and well. I think it would be alive and equally well if not better," he said. "The facilities that are creating huge profits right now are there and would be there."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose background is private equity finance involved in corporate turnarounds, also argued in an opinion piece this week in the Detroit News that the companies would have been even more competitive if the private sector rather than the Treasury Department had funded the reorganization.
"Instead of the free market doing what it does best, we got a major taste of crony capitalism, Obama-style," he wrote. "While a lot of (nonunion) workers and investors got the short end of the stick, Obama's union allies -- and his major campaign contributors -- reaped reward upon reward, all on the taxpayer's dime."
Obama administration officials from that time and outside experts dispute Romney's argument that the private sector had the willingness or wherewithal to fund the reorganizations. They say closing both companies would have been the only alternative to a bailout.
"It was the government or nothing," said Conway.
Even some critics of the bailout agree. Bill Wilson, the head of Americans for Limited Government, calls Romney's argument of private funding a "fantasy."
Where Wilson agrees with Romney is his belief that the United Auto Workers union and its members were protected far more than they would have been in a normal bankruptcy process. He argues that was wrong, and says neither union nor management employees should be getting profit-sharing bonuses until the government gets all its money back.
"This company only exists because of the United States taxpayers," he said. "The taxpayers should be repaid first."
To Wilson's point, the union members' pensions and health care coverage for retirees was left relatively untouched in the bankruptcy, and their base pay was not reduced.
But if GM and Chrysler had tried to terminate the union pension plans as other bankrupt companies, such as American Airlines owner AMR Corp ( ). is trying to do, they would have become the painfully expensive responsibility of the federal government.
The UAW did agree to some deep concessions. Most significantly, they lost the job guarantees that had kept autoworkers on nearly full pay even if they were laid off. That provision pushed automakers to keep producing cars even when there was no demand for them, which hurt sales prices and their competitiveness.
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