A win for Ford in the annual Bathurst 1000 car race yesterday, and a win for the Seven Network which has thrown its lot in with the V8 Supercars group, but you have to ask for how long after the last few days of near terror for General Motors and Ford.

Holden was second in the Bathurst race, but you should be taking a punt on the race not being around in its current form in 2009, such is the pace of change in the American car industry.

Bathurst is the creature of Seven (and briefly, Ten), Ford and General Motors and the V 8 Supercars Group. Ford and GM race Falcons and Commodores, which will be lucky to crack the 110,00 mark this year as car sales slump.

But it’s the pressures on both companies’ US parents that will be the decider in this story. They are under enormous pressure just to survive, to the point where mergers have been discussed.

America’s struggling Big Three car companies are looking to become a Big Two, or perhaps a reformulated Big Three as an outbreak of merger talks and other discussions is reported in the US.

General Motors is talking to Chrysler about a possible merger after an approach by GM to Ford last month was rebuffed. That was described at the weekend as a “non-goer”.

The news comes as both Ford and GM shares were hammered on Thursday on fears about their financial strength and after two gloomy reports were released by respected forecasters on the 2008 car sales year and for the next couple of years.

There were other reports in Europe that the talks between Chrysler and GM may have stalled after the sharp falls in the prices of Ford and GM shares. The two companies had started talking about sharing development costs and the chat had progressed to a wider basis. As well, it was reported that Ford has approached various Japanese groups about buying its controlling 33.4% stake in Mazda.

And Chrysler, which is owned by the Cerberus private equity group (which owns 51% of GMAC, the finance group 49% owned by GM) is also is talking to the likes of Nissan/Renault about a possible link up.

In typical American business reporting, Bloomberg said “Combining GM, the biggest U.S. automaker, with No. 3 Chrysler would cement GM’s global sales lead over Japan’s Toyota Motor Company and widen the gap with Ford Motor Co. The money-losing Detroit-area companies are under pressure to boost cash as the credit crisis dries up loans for dealers and buyers, helping send U.S. auto sales to their lowest since 1991.”

Widening the sales gap over Toyota and Ford has nothing to do with the merger talks: it’s sheer survival and nothing else.

Both discussions and Ford’s move to sell Mazda advances the day when GM and Ford reconsider their involvement in Australia and look to sell or leave to cut costs and losses.

All three US giants are under enormous financial pressure as car sales slump because of high oil and petrol prices, and the credit freeze slashes demand from dealers and consumers. September saw a 27% fall in US sales, after an 11% drop in August.

It’s another example of the way the credit crunch and freeze is linking up, or amplifying other factors in the economy to hurt more and more sectors of the US and global economies.

American competition regulators won’t stand in the way of such mergers, so fearful are US policymakers of a bloodbath in the huge car industry which remains one of the major engines of the Us economy. All those pension and healthcare liabilities that have to be met!

European regulators might think differently, but will be swayed by the sharp slump underway in European car sales. Luxury Marques like Mercedes and BMW are closing factories, cutting output and having to face up to huge and growing losses on car leases in the US.

GM hasn’t made a profit since 2004, and Chrysler, which has said it won’t be profitable this year, are under pressure to cut costs and increase cash reserves as American auto sales have fallen to the lowest since 1991.

US analysts say the presence of Cerberus in both camps makes the deal more logical, and a way for the private equity group and its investors to perhaps limit their large and growing losses, especially at GMAC which has lost over $US4.3 billion on write-downs and actual losses on subprime mortgages and dodgy securities. On top of that GMAC and Chrysler’s finance arm have had terrible losses on car leases as resale values collapse. Chrysler has turned away from car leasing to limit its losses and try and boost sales.

GM’s sales in September were ‘only’ off around 16%, compared to more than double that for Chrysler. The two would be motivated to merge, if an agreement can be struck.

Cerberus has been trying to buy the 19.9% of Chrysler still owned by Daimler which has slashed the value of that stake from 916 million euros at the end of 2007 to just 171 million euros at the end of June.

News of the talks came a day after Standard & Poor’s analyst Robert Schulz said that GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler may be forced into bankruptcy as the global credit freeze damps US domestic sales.

Bloomberg reported him a saying: “Macro factors could overwhelm them at some point” even as GM, Ford and Chrysler vow to stick with their turnaround plans, Schulz, S&P’s lead automotive credit analyst, said in a Bloomberg Television interview in New York. The companies said they have no plans to seek bankruptcy protection.

Japanese reports revealed the Ford move to sell most, if not all of its holding in Mazda.

Media reports said Ford wanted to sell around 20% of Mazda to raise valuable cash put at a net $US1 billion.

news of the merger and sales talks came after trading finished in the US on Saturday morning, our time.

GM shares rose 13 US cents, or 2.7%, to $US4.89 on the New York Stock Exchange, its first rise in two weeks.

Ford dropped 9 cents, or 4.3% to $US1.99, its lowest since October 1982.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW