General Motors said on Tuesday that its European arm could run out of money by as early as next month, putting up to 300,000 jobs on the continent at risk.
Fritz Henderson, the struggling Detroit carmaker’s chief operating officer, said that GM would face a liquidity crunch “early in the second quarter” if emergency funds from European countries did not materialise.
“We would try to stay alive, but there’s no guarantee we could stay alive,” Mr Henderson told reporters on Tuesday at the Geneva motor show. “We would become insolvent at that point.”
Drawing a direct line between its pleas for government aid and possible factory closures, GM estimated that its excess capacity in Europe stood at 30 per cent, meaning it had three plants too many on the continent.
Carl-Peter Forster, GM Europe’s president, called for European countries hosting its car factories to share the “burden”.
GM has asked German states for €3.3bn worth of bailout funds in exchange for shares in what will become a semi-autonomous European arm, of which its German Opel unit is the largest component.
GM has also held talks with governments of the UK, Spain, Poland and other European countries about providing aid.
The request has been met with scepticism by some in Germany, where the government has pressed the company for more details on its plans, and assurances that none of the money would flow back to Detroit.
GM’s European arm is a closely integrated part of its global operation, making the mechanics of the separation complex. GM has ruled out a full separation of its European arm, as called for by its unions, pointing out that GM Europe would need the leverage of its US parent’s scale in a tough global market.
Mr Forster said that a European treasury function would be created within the unit to “make sure the money isn’t flowing without both parties’ consent.” Issues like transfer pricing would be “looked at daily by tax advisers.”
“The British government can’t expect the German government to carry all that burden,” Mr Forster said. “It has to be a shared burden.”
He described GM’s two UK plants in Luton and Ellesmere Port as “very lean and productive.” Gordon Brown’s government has approved £2.3bn ($3.3bn) of loan guarantees for the entire car industry, but thus far resisted individual pleas for assistance from carmakers like GM and Jaguar/ Land Rover.
In Spain, the state government of Aragon has pledged €200m in aid for GM.
The carmaker employs about 50,000 people directly in Europe, and estimates that between 200,000 and 300,000 people depend on it for jobs, including suppliers and dealers.
In the US, GM last month asked the Treasury for up to $16.6bn in additional bailout funds, $4.6bn of which it said it would need in March and April to stay afloat.
Presenting its restructuring plan to the US government, GM said it needed to close 14 North American plants by 2012, but did not outline plans for factory closures in Europe.
Mr Forster said that GM was looking at voluntary separations, wage and salary concessions, and working time reduction models to meet its promise to the US government to cut $1.2bn from its European costs.
“It’s not easy to get to $1.2bn,” he said. “This is a lot of money we have to save to make our business viable.”
(FT, March 3, 2009, GM urges EU states to come to its aid)