Treasury Department Sells Its Stake In GM

The U.S. Department of Treasury has gotten out of the auto business. The government completed its sales of stock in General Motors on Monday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some of the most controversial investments ever made by the federal government are winding down. The Treasury Department sold its last shares of General Motors yesterday. That gets the U.S. out of the auto business.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The federal bailouts - first of the financial industry, then of auto companies - were fiercely criticized, not least because they were hugely expensive. But after a lapse of time, the price tag for the bailouts has started to look different.

INSKEEP: On the GM investment, the U.S. put in around $50 billion, but got 39 billion back. In the broader Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, the U.S. has now realized an $11 billion profit.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It was definitely not a sure thing that Washington would bail out the auto industry. During one Senate debate, majority leader Democrat Harry Reid outlined what a car industry bankruptcy would look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR HARRY REID: It's not going to be a pleasant sight. Millions of Americans - not only the auto workers, but people who sell cars, car dealerships, people who work on cars - are going to be directly impacted and affected.

GLINTON: On the other side, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby.

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SENATOR RICHARD SHELBY: Bailouts generally don't work, and this is a huge proposed bailout. And I fear it's just the down payment on more to come next year. So, I'd vote no on this tonight.

MICHELLE KREBS: I remember watching the congressional hearings.

GLINTON: That's Michelle Krebs. She's an auto analyst with Edmunds.com.

KREBS: And then being here in Detroit and just feeling this sense of doom, that we all may lose our job, any of us who had any kind of relationship with the auto industry.

GLINTON: Washington eventually came to Detroit's aid when the bailout was rolled into TARP during the Bush administration, and GM and Chrysler were shepherded through bankruptcy by the Obama administration. It became a centerpiece of the presidential campaign.

Here's the thing: While GM was everyone's punching bag, and politicians debated the merits of the bailout, Stephanie Brinley of IHS Automotive says GM focused on the car business.

STEPHANIE BRINLEY: They are more competitive. They are building better product. They are listening to their customers more and recognizing that they need to be profitable in all car sectors, not just profitable in trucks.

GLINTON: The company got smaller, slashing brands like Pontiac and Saturn, cutting tens of thousand of white and blue-collar jobs.

Brinley says the company has gotten nimble. It's also gotten an attitude adjustment.

KREBS: There was definitely some corporate arrogance that said that if we build it, they'll just to come to us. And it took them a while to fully absorb that that was no longer the case. They needed to be more competitive than they were.

GLINTON: GM repaid its loans to the government ahead of time in 2010, and the government sold off the last of its shares in General Motors yesterday.

Treasury lost about $10 billion in the deal, though administration officials point out that overall, TARP - which the car bailout was part of - has taken in more funds than it originally dispersed.

Michelle Krebs with Edmunds says an aftereffect of the GM bailout is that the industry, as a whole, has gotten more disciplined.

KREBS: I think that the lesson learned is: You must produce compelling products that consumers really want to buy, and want to buy not just because you discounted it. That been a really significant lesson.

GLINTON: It took a bankruptcy to teach them that?

KREBS: Well, maybe. You know, I don't know.

GLINTON: I guess that's one for the academics, or the politicians.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And we have some more General Motors news this morning. The company has a new CEO. Her name is Mary Barra. She will take over at the start of next year, and will be the first woman to lead a major automaker.

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