The Ripple Effect of a Potential GM Bankruptcy

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Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

A General Motors employee inspects a SUV on the assembly line at the GM assembly plant in Arlington, Texas.

As the Big Three automakers seek a $25 billion federal government bailout to avoid financial collapse, angst is rising among the auto behemoths' suppliers, and in the communities they support.

On Monday, an auto industry consulting firm, Planning Perspectives Inc., reported that 68% of participants in a survey of executives for industry suppliers said their companies would have to downsize if General Motors declared bankruptcy, while 12% said their businesses would likely close or would definitely do so. In the Midwest alone, some 275,000 jobs would be lost as a result of a GM bankruptcy. "If they go into bankruptcy, it's going to have a catastrophic effect on businesses across the board," says John W. Henke Jr., president of PPI, based in Birmingham, Mich. (See the Top 10 Bailout Measures.)

Amid the economic downturn, Americans are buying fewer new cars and light- trucks, or even used cars. In recent weeks, GM announced a third- quarter loss of $2.5 billion. And the major automakers have stirred a vigorous debate over how much, if at all, the federal government should be involved in rescuing yet another ailing industry.

Much of the automakers' argument hinges on the notion that the collapse of any of the key industry players would aggravate an already troubled economy. Fully one-third of automotive industry suppliers were deemed at risk of bankruptcy, according to a study earlier this year by Grant Thornton, a Southfield, Michigan, consulting firm. If General Motors files for bankruptcy, it will further impede its ability to pay its suppliers in full, on time. Many suppliers are already saddled with debt. So the extra burden will likely obliterate suppliers' operating budgets — and, in turn, cripple their ability to deliver goods to surviving automakers.

Experts say the suppliers most vulnerable to collapse are those whose businesses are heavily dependent on the ailing U.S. automakers, or on raw materials for which rising costs cannot be easily passed onto the automakers. Kimberly Rodriguez, automotive industry analyst at Grant Thornton, says concern about how suppliers will be impacted is justified: "It's not hype. It's huge." (See the 10 Things to Do With Your Money Right Now.)

To understand how the angst is playing out, consider Tipton, Ind., population barely 5,000. In April 2007, the German manufacturer Getrag LLC announced it would build a $455 million plant about an hour's drive north of Indianapolis. The plant's sole purpose was to build energy-efficient transmissions for Chrysler. The plant would inject some 1,200 new jobs into a state whose economy is both ailing and heavily dependent on the automotive industry. Townsfolk talked of a new hotel, a new fast-food restaurant. Earlier this month, however, Getrag announced that the entity established to build the Tipton plant would file for bankruptcy and that the plant would not open, mainly because Chrysler backed out of its agreement. "We had big ideas, big plans," says Tipton's mayor, Dan Delph. "But now they're on hold."

Meanwhile, just to the north, in Kokomo, Ind., Rich Boruff, vice- president of the United Auto Workers local 685, is closely watching the developments. Kokomo boasts plants for Chrysler and one of the nation's largest auto parts suppliers, Delphi. So there is much at stake. Boruff and his troops have been calling and e-mailing their Congressional representatives, urging them to support a bailout for the major automakers. The consequences of a bankruptcy declaration from either of the Big Three, he fears, are just too severe. "It'd kill us," he says.

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