For GM, bankruptcy will be a two-edged sword

A reorganized company will face its own set of problems.

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- A bankruptcy filing for General Motors could come in the next few days, now that GM bondholders have rejected a proposed swap of $27 billion in unsecured company debt for 10% of GM's stock.

Up until a few months ago, bankruptcy for the corporate giant was nearly unthinkable. Former CEO Rick Wagoner all but refused to utter the word, so convinced was he that it would be fatal to customers' confidence in GM's brands.

Now, maybe, it doesn't look so bad. GM (GM, Fortune 500) is still selling cars and trucks, despite all the bad news associated with the company. And Chrysler is on the verge of exiting from its bankruptcy in record time. Already, we are told, the new guys from Fiat are getting ready to make over the company and blitz consumers with new and improved Italian-American products. Perhaps bankruptcy is a good thing.

But let's pause for a minute and think about what a post-bankruptcy GM will actually look like.

As it stands now, the new GM will be shorn of some of those nasty money-losing bits that so bothered the old GM.

Hummer is for sale. Just getting rid of it will be a public relations plus. GM will get all those nasty environmentalists off its back.

Saab is for sale too. The list of potential suitors has been reduced from ten to three and the Swedish government is acting as marriage broker. No more parts sharing with Opel, though, and no more economies of scale.

For that matter, no more Opel. GM has spun off its European operations and the bidders are lining up. Get out your scorecards: They include the aforementioned Fiat; Magna International (MGA), the big Canadian parts maker; Beijing Automotive Industry Corp., a major Chinese automotive manufacturer; and RHJ International (RHJIF) of Belgium, a diversified holding company.

Saturn goes away as well. Roger Penske, distributor of Smart cars, may be a buyer. He wants to import Renault Samsung Motors cars built in Korea and sell them through Saturn dealers. He couldn't do much worse than GM did selling rebadged Opels through Saturn stores.

Pontiac is kaput. GM's third most popular brand is done for. Sayonara.

What this all means is that is that GM continues to shrink like an iceberg in Lake Michigan. Its U.S. market share has already plunged from 21.9% to 19.2% this year. Taking out Hummer, Saab, Saturn, and Pontiac will bring it down to 16.4% at current rates. Since GM is in the process of axing 1,124 dealers, you can figure on it losing another point or so there as well.

For those keeping score at home, Toyota's (TM) U.S. market share was 16.1% for the first four months of the year; Ford's (F, Fortune 500) was 15.1%. GM could be a third-place company before long.

New government fuel economy regulations also face GM as it emerges from bankruptcy -- 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2016. GM likes to brag about all the cars it makes that get 30 miles per gallon but it is still a long way from 39 mpg. It has already announced it is discontinuing its five high-performance models. Expect other high-horsepower models like Camaro to vanish as well.

Anyone for a four-cylinder Corvette?

The government is likely to loom larger in other GM actions post-bankruptcy, since it will own 70% of the company. Although it disclaims any interest in micromanaging the automaker, it wouldn't be human if it didn't try to make some helpful suggestions.

Such as asking GM, why are you spending $1 billion on the Volt extended-range electric vehicle when you're not going to make a profit on it?

Or, why do you need the GMC brand when it essentially duplicates the Chevrolet truck lineup?

And don't forget the United Auto Workers, who could wind up owning up to 20% of a reorganized GM. GM has already agreed to spare two plants that had been targeted for closure at the behest of the UAW. And it is taking back five UAW plants that had been mired in the bankruptcy of GM's old parts making unit, Delphi (DPHIQ, Fortune 500). What else is on the union's wish list?

So a restructured, post-bankruptcy GM may look a whole lot fitter than the old model. But it sure will be different, and it may not find life a whole lot easier. To top of page

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