This week, Chrysler announced plans to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  This is not liquidation (chapter 7).  The intent of chapter 11 is to give a company time to restructure its debt.  In the case of Chrysler, it appears that it will emerge from bankruptcy under joint ownership of Fiat, the United Auto Workers union, and the United States Government.  Current majority owner Cerberus Capital Management will cede its share of the company

In another corner of Detroit, General Motors may be preparing for a bankruptcy filing of its own.  While GM’s 1st quarter loss of $6 billion was better than what industry experts had expected, $6 billion is still a huge quarterly loss.  GM’s book value (assets – liabilities) is now about -$90 billion.  Once again, Fiat is being mentioned, this time as a possible buyer for GM’s European subsidiary.

Earlier in the year, I was talking with friends and mentioned that I would not be surprised if a foreign company jumped in and bought GM and Chrysler.  My thought, however, was that it would be a Japanese company.  Mitsubishi – a huge corporation with operations in several industries – was the company that I thought was most likely.  Toyota also seemed like a possibility.  I must admit that Fiat never entered my mind.

What is Fiat, exactly?  Fiat is an Italian company that was founded in 1899.  The most stunning revelation I discovered was that I was that Fiat owns a substantial stake in Ferrari – and has since the 1960s!    Fiat has won the European car of the year award 12 times in the last 40 years, more often than any other manufacturer.  Fiat is also the second largest agricultural equipment manufacturer in the world behind Deere (Fiat owns companies such as Case IH) and third largest construction equipment manufacturer, behind Caterpillar and Komatsu.  Fiat has additional interests in several other industries.  In short, it is a huge multinational corporation that manages operations in many industries and actually turned a profit last year – a net income of 1.7 billion Euros last year on just under 60 billion Euros in revenue.

The deal Fiat made with Chrysler was that Chrysler would give Fiat a 35% stake in exchange for access to some Fiat technologies (in particular, technology related to hybrids).  Certainly Fiat gave up some competitive advantages by allowing Chrysler access to the technologies, but on the flip side, they were able to acquire 35% of Chrysler for no money out of pocket.  Don’t be surprised if they do indeed pick up GM Europe for a song – and don’t be surprised if Fiat turns the GM and Chrysler units into profitable businesses in the course of the next decade.  Interestingly, GM once owned a stake in Fiat.  Fita had a “put” option, meaning that Fiat had the option of selling itself to GM at a particular price (market value, in this case).  GM declined to honor the option and paid $2 billion to Fiat (this was a penalty that was specified in the put option).  In essence, Fiat can use some of GM’s own money to buy GM Europe..

Another company that could come out of this mess as a winner is Ford.  A portion of the country has a strong desire to buy an “American” car.  It is quite possible that there will soon be just one choice – and this could allow Ford to significantly strengthen its market share.  I’m not suggesting that they would immediately pick up the entire market share of GM and Chrysler, just that they could carve out a large chunk of it.

From the perspective of the consumer, the one good bit of news is that the US government is providing a guarantee for the warranties of any US automakers that go bankrupt.  Surely there were some people who were delaying a purchase over fears that the warranty would be worthless if the manufacturer went bankrupt – they can now buy without that fear.

From an entertainment perspective, it will be interesting to see what sort of impact this will have on NASCAR.  The auto manufacturers provide financial support for team that race under their emblem.  Will the Chevys and Dodges continue to race in NASCAR in 2010?

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Kosmo is the founder of The Soap Boxers and writes on a variety of topics. Many of his short stories have been collected into Kindle books.

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