GM bankruptcy looms after bondholders back deal

DETROIT/BERLIN Thu May 28, 2009 7:46pm EDT

1 of 2. Flags wave behind a General Motors Corp sign in downtown in Detroit May 28, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch

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DETROIT/BERLIN (Reuters) - General Motors Corp persuaded its major bondholders to accept a sweetened ownership plan on Thursday, a deal that could result in a smoother ride for the carmaker through bankruptcy.

But the troubles for Detroit's automakers deepened when former Ford Motor Co unit Visteon Corp and another parts supplier filed for bankruptcy protection -- a move some analysts worried could affect Ford's cash position.

Ford, the only U.S. automaker operating without emergency government support, played down the concerns.

In the biggest news of the day, GM said it had reached a debt-for-equity deal with some major bondholders that would give them a bigger stake in a reorganized automaker and could pave the way for a fast-track bankruptcy backed by the U.S. Treasury.

One senior U.S. government official suggested GM could emerge from a court-supervised restructuring in as few as two or three months. GM is widely expected to file no later than June 1, a U.S. government-imposed deadline for the automaker to prove its viability or seek court protection.

The announcement of a possible deal with bondholders was the clearest indication yet that GM, the No. 1 U.S. automaker, is close to filing for bankruptcy under the direction of the Obama administration. It would be the biggest-ever bankruptcy for a U.S. industrial company and the third-largest in U.S. history after Lehman Brothers and Worldcom.

Under the proposed deal, bondholders representing $27 billion in debt would be offered 10 percent of a reorganized GM -- the same stake they had been offered previously.

But bondholders would now also receive warrants to acquire another 15 percent of the equity in the new company, provided they support a quick Treasury-backed sale process similar to one now being used for rival Chrysler.

A committee representing the major bondholders said they supported the revised offer as the "the best alternative ... in the current difficult and dire situation." But two groups representing individual bondholders continued to balk, with one calling the proposal "chilling."

A senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the government expects at least 35 percent of bondholders to accept the new offer.

The official, who estimated that any GM bankruptcy would take at least 60 to 90 days and perhaps longer, said that potential new aid to GM could total $40 billion, including $9 billion from Canada. But he predicted GM would emerge from bankruptcy a "highly, highly profitable" company.

UAW APPROVAL KEY

Members of the United Auto Workers, meanwhile, were voting Thursday on an agreement that would give the union a stake in GM in return for concessions. Initial tallies suggested the rank-and-file workers would ratify the deal.

In an interview with Reuters, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said he expected the process to be complete by 4 p.m. EDT on Friday and predicted the automaker would be "a much stronger company" after restructuring.

The UAW will have one director on the board of the reorganized GM and a 17.5 percent stake in the company.

The union does not expect to exercise a warrant to buy another 2.5 percent of GM because of a requirement that the new automaker be valued at $75 billion for that to be exercisable, Gettelfinger said.

Gettelfinger also said both GM and Chrysler should not expect any further concessions after the recent cost-cutting contract changes negotiated by the union.

"The companies cannot use this contract as an excuse for anything that happens in the future. There is no question about that," he told Reuters. "We're scrubbed clean."

In a court in New York, meanwhile, Chrysler, which filed for bankruptcy last month, pushed for approval to sell most of its operations to a group that includes Italy's Fiat, labor unions and the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Approval would be a victory for the White House, which many bankruptcy specialists had criticized as unrealistic when it set a 30-to-60-day schedule for bringing the automaker's operations through Chapter 11.

During the hearing, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli said the only alternative to the Fiat deal would have been a "cataclysmic" liquidation of his company.

THE OPEL ROADBLOCK

In Europe, Germany's goal of shielding Opel from GM's imminent bankruptcy hit a roadblock, raising the risk of insolvency for the German carmaker.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he would talk to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later in the day, after German ministers emerged from 12 hours of talks having failed to strike a deal to provide Opel with temporary financing in the event of a GM bankruptcy.

"(I will) urgently ask that attention is directed at Opel in the coming hours," he said.

The battle for Opel has effectively narrowed to a race between carmaker Fiat and auto parts supplier Magna, but it remains unclear whether Opel will be drawn into GM's bankruptcy.

German ministers put the blame for the failed deal talks on GM and the U.S. Treasury.

Opel traces its roots in Germany back to the 19th century and employs about 25,000 staff in four plants there. UK-based Vauxhall Motors, which employs 5,000 people, is being spun off from GM Europe along with Opel.

($1=.7232 Euro)

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaus across the world; Writing by James B. Kelleher; editing by Patrick Fitzgibbons, Will Waterman and Matthew Lewis)