The Rat’s Nest That Is GM

Megan McArdle does the math on the government’s investment in GM and concludes that given the pricing of the company’s IPO that we are likely to lose at least $10 billion of the $50 billion or so that we advanced the company. She also does a thought on how we might have more wisely spent on our money.

But that is not an endorsement of the bailouts, which remain an expensive boondoggle.  We could have given every autoworker $100,000, offered retraining and relocation assistance to tens of thousands of employees at their suppliers, and still come out ahead on this deal.  Had we done this, we would have helped eliminate some of the overcapacity in the global auto industry, and sent a clear signal to CEOs that they should not emulate Rick Wagoner’s pigheaded refusal to prepare for a possible reorganization.

No need to burnish those comments.

However, I wonder if she factored this bit of data into her calculations of the likely future stock price:

GM, which plans to begin promoting its relisting on the stock exchange to investors this week, wiped out billions of dollars in debt, laid off thousands of employees and jettisoned money-losing brands during its U.S.-funded reorganization last year.

Now it turns out, according to documents filed with federal regulators, the revamping left the car maker with another boost as it prepares to return to the stock market. It won’t have to pay $45.3 billion in taxes on future profits.

The tax benefit stems from so-called tax-loss carry-forwards and other provisions, which allow companies to use losses in prior years and costs related to pensions and other expenses to shield profits from U.S. taxes for up to 20 years. In GM’s case, the losses stem from years prior to when GM entered bankruptcy.

Usually, companies that undergo a significant change in ownership risk having major restrictions put on their tax benefits. The U.S. bailout of GM, in which the Treasury took a 61% stake in the company, ordinarily would have resulted in GM having such limits put on its tax benefits, according to tax experts.

But the federal government, in a little-noticed ruling last year, decided that companies that received U.S. bailout money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t fall under that rule.

“The Internal Revenue Service has decided that the government’s involvement with these companies, both its acquisitions plus its disposals of their stock, means they should be exempt” from the rule, said Robert Willens, a New York tax consultant who advises investment banks and hedge funds.

It seems a stretch to lump GM into the same group of companies that received TARP assistance and didn’t reorganize under the bankruptcy code. Then again, this whole episode has been full of Faustian bargains. Give some props to the IRS for recognizing that the political gain from hyping the stock price by exempting GM from current income taxes trumps the longer-term revenue gain from income taxes. At least they recognize who’s signing their paychecks now.

Before you rush out and take a flyer on the stock keep one thing in mind. More than a bit of the tax savings are pension related. Those pension liabilities aren’t trivial and sooner rather than later are going to have to be funded with real dollars. Unfortunately, the only way to get around that liability is in the bankruptcy courts.

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