General Motors Corp. marks the launch of its new full-size truck platform at the North American International Auto Show this month, but more is at risk for the company than whether drivers buy into its revamped line.
The Detroit-based firm is at risk of seeing Toyota Motor Corp. take over its spot as the world's biggest automaker in 2006, while financial analysts continue probing every sale and statement out of GM for a hint of its fiscal health.
Meanwhile, across town in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Mich., Ford Motor Co. will announce details, in late January, of a restructuring plan that is expected to close plants.
The year is setting itself up as another one of turmoil, coming on the heels of a hard 2005 - but it will not necessarily be a year of doom and gloom.
``I keep trying to bring some rational discussion back about GM,'' said Kim Korth, president of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based auto consulting group IRN Inc. ``They're not going to go bankrupt - not like some would have you think, anyway.''
GM and Ford have big problems in terms of seeing their sales bases shrink while their costs go up, industry watchers said. Although those issues will mean more intense discussions throughout the coming year, they do not spell the end of the North American auto industry.
``I wouldn't be truthful if I said [speculation about GM] wasn't frustrating,'' said GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner during a conference call with the media in November.
``Fundamentally if you look at our liquidity structure, we're on very sound financial footing. When you have a business that's in transition, there are risks. Those risks are manageable, and we intend to manage them.''
At the core of the issues for both GM and Ford and, to an extent, for German-American automaker DaimlerChrysler AG, is the legacy cost of doing business in North America.
The companies have a history of paying top dollar for their workers and approved past contracts with the United Auto Workers that guaranteed extensive pension and health benefits for retired workers.
Now, with money tight and their market share dropping, the companies will be looking at ways to renegotiate elements of their labor contracts. Currently those deals are set to expire in 2007, but Jim Gillette, director of supplier analysis for Novi, Mich.-based auto consulting group CSM Worldwide, said neither the automakers nor workers can afford to wait that long.
And they cannot afford not to talk.
Delphi Corp., the biggest auto supplier in North America and a GM spinoff, elected to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in part to force changes to its labor contract. Playing hardball on labor talks now could be the one thing that pushes either GM or Ford over the edge and into bankruptcy court as well.
If labor negotiations between Delphi and the UAW result in strikes, GM would be forced to shut down or slow its own production because of a shortfall in parts. Korth said she sees a Delphi strike or more problems with the union as the only reasons why GM would enter bankruptcy, and that will not happen overnight.
But analysts with New York-based Standard & Poor's are worried enough about that potential to downgrade GM's debt grade to junk status. Despite having billions of dollars of cash on hand, the automaker is at risk of burning through that money quickly, and must be prepared to act before it reaches crisis level, analyst Robert Schulz said.
``We don't think the company in general is necessarily going to wait until they've spent their last dollar until they felt the need to restructure,'' Schulz said. ``On the contrary, a company like GM would need to retain a great deal of liquidity should it ever decide to file for bankruptcy. They would want to do that with a great deal of liquidity available to them so they would be assured of their ability to continue auto programs.''
Meanwhile, suppliers will need to find the best way to survive the turmoil. CSM's Gillette expects automakers may opt to stock up on parts in case of wildcat strikes at Delphi, which could mean erratic production schedules for their suppliers.
Parts makers must try to limit their exposure to troubled car and truck lines and seek out new business with the growing number of international automakers setting up shop in the United States. But they also must take care not to upset existing customers by ignoring them.
``The more aggressive suppliers are even going to have to figure out if this is a good opportunity for them to expand,'' Gillette said. ``They have to see what's going on at Delphi and Visteon [Corp.] and wonder if they're going to be selling something that they can use.''