Saving GM Canada at Any Price?

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Rene Johnston / The Toronto Star / ZUMA Press

Work boots hang from the fence as the last Canadian GM truck came off of the line at the General Motors truck assembly plant in Oshawa, Canada.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Monday that his government will invest $9 billion in General Motors of Canada Ltd. to keep it alive amid harsh criticism that the unpopular bailout will end up costing Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars for each assembly-line job saved.

"If that's not insanity, I don't know what is," says Toronto analyst Dennis DesRosiers with DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, referring to the ransomlike price GM demanded for its promise to maintain a share of its car and truck production north of Detroit. "This deal does more to get Obama reelected than it does to save jobs in Canada."

This latest announcement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper brings the total cost for Canada of restructuring GM to $9.5 billion, including $450 million in emergency funding already used by the car company, compared to $49.8 billion promised by the Obama Administration. In exchange Ottawa and the province of Ontario, where GM Canada has all its operations, receive a 12% stake in Detroit-based GM, representation on the new board and the promise to keep 16% of the struggling automaker's production in Canada as it restructures in coming months.

At present GM Canada has 12,000 hourly and salaried employees, but that number is expected to shrink to about 5,500 over the next couple of years. About 1,100 of the new total is expected to be salaried jobs, which are unrelated to assembly operations. That means Ottawa and the Ontario government are together spending an unprecedented $2.1 million for each assembly job at GM Canada they hope to save.

Despite the hefty price tag, both Ottawa and Ontario felt their hands were tied, and there was little haggling. "We had to save it all or have zero forever," PM Harper said at a joint news conference in Toronto, referring to the rescue of GM Canada.

At the same event, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said, "The alternative would have been a devastating blow to Ontario families and communities." GM Canada annually buys about $7.2 billion worth of parts from Ontario suppliers, who employ 45,000 workers. These and spin-off jobs would have also been jeopardized by the failure of GM Canada.

Unlike Obama, PM Harper conceded that he is not optimistic about recouping the billions of dollars Canadian taxpayers are giving to GM. Perhaps that's a more realistic approach given that at today's market capitalization on the NYSE, Canada's 12% stake in the automaker is worth a shocking $54 million. (The U.S. and Canadian bailout of the automaker is nearly 130 times the company's present value.)

"This is a one-shot deal and we have to be optimistic it will succeed," says Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza, adding that he had expected the bailout of GM Canada to be larger than the $2.7 billion figure first floated by Ottawa at the end of 2008.

However Canada's willingness to offer as much as it has to GM Canada comes in the face of strong public opposition to the bailout, even in dyed-in-the-wool auto towns like Oshawa and Windsor. "Across Canada opposition to bailing out the car companies is something like 4 to 1," says analyst DesRosiers, who has more than 30 years of auto-industry experience. For $9 billion, he adds, the Canadian government could have asked any of the solvent Japanese or European automakers to build five new car plants in Ontario.