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U.S. tells GM to prepare for bankruptcy filing just in case

DETROIT — The Treasury department is directing General Motors Corp. to lay the groundwork for a bankruptcy filing by a June 1 deadline, despite GM's public contention that it could still reorganize outside court, people with knowledge of the plans told the New York Times during the weekend.

Members of President Barack Obama's automotive task force spent last week in meetings and on conference calls with GM officials and its advisers in Detroit and Washington. Those talks are expected to continue this week.

The goal is to prepare for a fast, "surgical" bankruptcy, the people who had been briefed on the plans said. GM, which has been granted $13.4 billion in federal aid, insists that a quick restructuring is necessary so its image and sales are not damaged permanently.

The preparations are aimed at ensuring that a GM bankruptcy filing is ready should the company be unable to reach agreement with bondholders to exchange roughly $28 billion in debt into equity in GM and with the United Automobile Workers union, which has balked at granting concessions without sacrifices from bondholders.

Obama, elected with strong backing from labor, remained concerned about potential risk to GM's pension plan and wants to avoid harming workers, said these people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

None of these people agreed to be identified, because they were not authorized to discuss the process. Spokesmen for GM and the Treasury did not comment.

A new company?

One plan under consideration would create a company that would buy the "good" assets of GM almost immediately after the carmaker files for bankruptcy.

Less desirable assets, including unwanted brands, factories and health care obligations, would be left in the old company, which could be liquidated over several years.

Treasury officials are examining one potential outcome in which the "good GM" enters and exits bankruptcy protection in as little as two weeks, using $5 billion to $7 billion in federal financing, a person who had been briefed on the prospect said last week.

The rest of GM may require as much as $70 billion in government financing, and possibly more to resolve the health care obligations and the liquidation of the factories, according to legal experts and federal officials.

Since replacing Rick Wagoner on March 31, GM's chief executive, Fritz Henderson, has sent increasingly clear signals that bankruptcy is probable unless agreements are reached with labor and the bondholders by the administration's June 1 deadline.

Unlike Wagoner, who refused until his final days at GM to consider a Chapter 11 filing, Henderson has deployed staff to work with legal and government advisers, although he does not agree that a bankruptcy is inevitable.

Last week, he said GM was proceeding on a dual track, hoping to restructure out of court, but also preparing for a filing.

"If we need to resort to bankruptcy, we have to do it quickly," Henderson said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Still work to do

John Paul MacDuffie, an associate professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said he saw little chance of an out-of-court restructuring, given that the Obama administration had rejected GM's proposed revitalization plan in March. It was submitted without the concessions that were required from bondholders and the union, and which have still not been reached.

"The simplest way to frame it is that they took the loans, there were conditions on the loans, they didn't prove their case for financial viability, and they didn't meet the deadline, either," MacDuffie said.

Lawyers for GM and the government have much work to do before any bankruptcy case can begin, executives with bankruptcy experience said last week.

First and foremost, GM would have to formulate a business plan that addresses virtually every aspect of the company that it hopes to transform while under bankruptcy protection.

It would have to show how it would save billions of dollars through agreements with its bondholders and unions, how many dealers it plans to keep, and the plants and offices it plans to either close or preserve.

The plan also needs to give a candid forecast of the car market, a tricky prospect given the sharp falloff in sales over the last few months, these executives said.

The Treasury Department has hired Boston Consulting Group to help with the business plan, according to a notice posted Wednesday on FedBizOpps.gov, a government procurement Web site.

Participation from banks also may be needed, and because of the weak economic climate, lenders are likely to insist that GM wring as much out of its operations as possible. "It's a complex system, and you've got to be thinking big," MacDuffie said.

Finally, legal experts said, GM would have to try to prevent panic among consumers in the event of a bankruptcy filing. The government has said it will guarantee GM's vehicle warranties.

Since then, GM has started an aggressive advertising campaign stressing that car buyers should have confidence in the company, and offering to make nine months of payments, up to $500 each, for owners who lose their jobs.

U.S. tells GM to prepare for bankruptcy filing just in case 04/12/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 12, 2009 10:14pm]
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