Global Warming, U.S. Economy and the GM Bailout
Why do I have these three themes in one sentence? That is because I think these could shape each other’s future with a little foresight.
Transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for a third of all carbon dioxide emission in the U.S. and Canada. Governments the world over are awakening to the fact that irreversible damage is being done to the environment on a global scale, with fossil fuels one of the key culprits. If there is one line item that you are going to find in the budgets of most rational governments the world over, it is investments in clean energy including reducing auto emissions.
President Obama has already made his stance on this clear by saying he hopes to see 1 million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Many have called this optimistic, but I don’t think so, only that I think President Obama is being myopic in his definition of “road”. I think the U.S. can take a leadership position in the global Hybrid car industry, not just the U.S., by bringing together likeminded Governments that would like to see a reduced consumption of fossil fuels. He said “"The nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it." And I agree, but I think “$4 billion in guaranteed loans and tax credits to help U.S. automakers retool for more fuel-efficient cars and to develop batteries for plug-in hybrids that get up to 150 mpg”, is taking a passive stance on the subject. If one American revolutionized the Global Auto Industry with the Model T, no reason why another cannot shape it’s future with making Hybrid technology affordable.
The combination of increased global concern on climate change, public opinion focused on a faltering economy and the current turmoil in the U.S. auto industry provides an alignment that the President should leverage. Especially opportune is the U.S. Government’s investment resulting in controlling interest in General Motors. I have not been fond of bailouts in general, as I favor natural evolution and survival of the fittest, but in this case it could be a good thing. GM is a company that has already made significant investments in hybrid technology (although cars like the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS with a V-8 engine bring into question the GM's product development strategy and Bob Lutz's commitment to the longer term). With the might of U.S. Tax payer dollars behind it and a more active rather than a passive Taxpayer role in the Board, this company can take a global leadership role in making U.S. hybrid technology the prevailing currency across the world over the next 5-10 years. This will require the U.S. Government to evolve GM into a largely hybrid car manufacturer. From a macro perspective, this could provide a significant boost to exports in the longer term, balancing the worsening Trade Gap (sales recorded by the global hybrid vehicles market are expected to surge at a CAGR of around 12% during 2008-2015 and focusing on this growth should only enhance Taxpayers’ Return on Investment on GM).
I know from an economic perspective, to make this a profitable venture will require a lot of work. Currently hybrid technology is far from affordable- the GM Volt, which plugs into a household electric socket to charge, is slated to retail for $40,000, nearly the same price as a conventionally fueled Mercedes C Class. As technology improves, this dynamic should change significantly- just look at the Notebook computer industry. And then again this is not just about profits- developing a potentially successful U.S. Hybrid Car Industry has ramifications that will reverberate for more than a hundred years to come, in a global climate that will finally begin the healing process from generations of big-cylinder, gas-guzzling monster cars spewing CO2 into the air.
So is the Government bailout of GM a smart move? Yes- only if President Obama was serious when he was talking about “Change”. If he really is as imaginative a leader as I think he is, he will take this opportunity and score a big touchdown on all three fronts: Global Warming, U.S. Economy and the General Motors.