Building on a track record

BUILDING ON A TRACK RECORD…. If the most recent interview on “60 Minutes” is any indication, President Obama is giving a fair amount of thought to the U.S. auto industry’s bleak future. As he conceded, there’s little optimism for the industry, and further government intervention strikes many as dubious.

In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, however, Phillip Longman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has a great piece drawing a key parallel policymakers would be wise to consider.

[A]ny honest reading of history suggests that the federal government has quite an impressive record of rescuing institutions considered too big to fail. In addition to almost routine workouts of failed banks conducted in good and bad times by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and other regulators, the list includes many large industrial companies as well. In 1971, for example, Congress extended emergency loans to failing aircraft builder Lockheed and wound up not only saving a company vital to America’s national defense and export manufacturing base, but earning a net income for the Treasury of $5.4 million in loan fees.

In 1980 it did the same for Chrysler, this time extending loan guarantees in exchange for stock warrants that, after the company returned to health and paid back its loans, yielded the government a cool $311 million in capital gains. More recently, in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress granted airlines $5 billion in direct compensation for lost business and up to $10 billion in loan guarantees, again in exchange for stock warrants. That wasn’t enough to save many individual airlines from having to undergo restructuring plans imposed by bankruptcy judges, but when Americans took to the air again they found the industry intact and offering plenty of flights. Moreover, by February 2007, airline stocks had recovered enough that the Treasury was able to sell its warrants for a net profit of $119 million, with no loans left outstanding.

Now, however, comes the prospect of something much larger. Government has already thrown billions at the gigantic mess that is the American auto industry. With Detroit continuing to hemorrhage jobs and cash in a deeply troubled economy, it looks as if government will have to take a much more hands-on approach to reengineering the industry, if not through the bankruptcy courts then through direct executive supervision. Should we be worried that government will make a hash of it? Of course. But there is a bright shining example from not so long ago of government bureaucrats engineering the revival of an industry easily as troubled as today’s automakers and, if anything, more central to the economy. And it all turned out better than anyone dared hope, with a dazzling return to profitability.

That bright shining example is the railroad industry. Longman’s piece explains the similarities, and explores why the success can be repeated.

Take a look.