Opening Bell: Will Americans Drop the SUV?

Carmakers think so; GM may unload Hummer; WaPo’s hyperlocal Web site experiment bombs; etc.

(Sub-headline corrected on 6/8/08)

The nation’s car market continued to suffer from high gas prices, with sales tumbling 11 percent in May and General Motors market share falling to the lowest level in more than half a century. GM announced new cuts to truck production as its CEO called the American consumer’s move to more fuel-efficient cars “by and large, permanent.”

Sales plunged 28 percent at GM, 25 percent at Chrysler and 16 percent at Ford as car buyers moved to smaller cars and away from trucks. Toyota and Honda, much less dependent on truck and SUV sales, were down 4 percent and up 16 percent, respectively.

In a sign of the times, a Ford exec called the sudden shift away from trucks “breathtaking” and the company’s F-150 pickup fell to No. 5 on the bestseller list, The Wall Street Journal reports on B5. It’s been No. 1 almost every month for thirty years. The new top two? The Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla, says The New York Times.

It’s about as easy for Detroit to shift gears as it is to do a three-point turn in a Mack truck, but CEO Rick Wagoner (with a name like that, does this guy have vehicles in his DNA or what?) announced it will close four truck and SUV plants within two years and move to making more small cars, the Journal says on B1 and the Times on C1.

The Times calls the cuts “drastic” and says it will leave 8,000 workers “idle,” and the Journal says it means the behemoth’s losses, which total nearly $60 billion since the start of 2004 (“one of the worst stretches of corporate losses in history”), will continue for another couple of years. Bloomberg says it means GM will produce 700,000 fewer trucks and SUVs a year, while boosting car production by 200,000 because of its new view that oil prices aren’t going back down.

“This isn’t a bubble,” said David Littmann, senior economist for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit research group in Midland, Michigan. “Unless there’s a concerted political decision to go out and drill for more oil, the automakers will no longer be American. GM could have a hyphen in its name.”

It’s an embarrassing admission of error by Wagoner, who made a big bet on SUVs just three years ago. SUV sales in the last year are half what they were in 2003 and GM’s market value is one-fourth what it was when Wagoner took over in 2000, says the WSJ. Might as well fire up the death watch.

GM may jettison the absurd Hummer

In a move rich with symbolism, GM said it may even sell off its Hummer brand, which has fast become a relic of the lost innocence—and indulgence—of dollar-a-gallon gasoline. The Financial Times tells us in the second paragraph of its GM story that “Owners of the marque’s military-style vehicles include 50 Cent, the rapper, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s governor.” Thanks for that, FT. Nice to know the reverse pyramid is still alive.

The Hummer news combined with the truck-plant closings elicited the Quote of the Day from the Times on C1:

“I think G.M. is basically declaring the S.U.V. dead,” said John Casesa, managing partner of the auto consulting firm Casesa Shapiro Group in New York. “The trend away from these vehicles is irreversible.”

Meanwhile, GM’s board gave the go-ahead to the Chevy Volt, its new electric car, now slated for 2010.

The NYT has an interesting bit of page-one analysis that estimates the total cost of a vehicle based on an average five years of use. Adding in gasoline makes the F-250 and Lincoln Navigator look much more expensive than they do on the lot. Over five years, with gas, they’ll cost about $100,000—or as the Times helpfully puts it, 20 percent of the average family’s income. And that’s pre-tax income.

A Ford Focus runs less than $40,000, while a Toyota Prius costs a bit more.

Credit-ratings industry gets religion (under duress)

The credit-ratings industry is close to a settlement with the New York attorney general to reform its business practices, the papers say.

The deal would try to remove a major conflict of interest from the industry by changing how it gets paid.

The WSJ:

Now, while more than one ratings firm reviews most deals, not all of them always rate the deal and get paid. That gives the firms an incentive to go easy on their rating in order to win the business.

Under the Cuomo settlement, which would cover the hardest-hit portions of the mortgage market, the firms would get paid for their review, even if they didn’t end up getting hired to rate the deal. This would mean the firms would get paid even if they were tough.

The Journal says its could change the industry “as fundamentally” as the stock-research game was changed six years ago by a settlement with then-AG Eliot Spitzer.

The NYT goes high in its C1 story with news that the settlement would also require the firms, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, to aid New York’s investigation of the mortgage-securitization business, something the Journal buries. They would get immunity from prosecution in exchange.

(The attorney general) has been investigating the once-booming and lucrative mortgage business for about a year. He is focusing on whether investment banks withheld critical information about the home loans they were packaging into bonds to be sold to investors like hedge funds, insurance companies and pension funds.

The Journal says the deal is unlikely to assuage critics of the ratings industry, since they’ll still ultimately be paid by those they’re rating.

It’s a move in the right direction to reform a critical component of the mortgage mess, though.

Lehman Bros. is scrambling

Lehman Brothers’ woes continued yesterday, with its stock down 15 percent at one point on rumors it had gone to the Federal Reserve for money. The investment bank denied that, and its shares closed down nearly 10 percent on the day.

The Journal says on C1 that Lehman is going overseas to look for its latest raft of capital, which may reach more than $4 billion. It lost $500 million to $700 million hedging its credit positions in the second quarter, the FT reports on its page one. That’s in addition to losses on other hedges on its real estate positions.

Both papers note that the Federal Reserve’s post-Bear Stearns loan backstop makes it much harder for the bank to go through a similar panic that takes its legs out from under it.

The NYT on C1 looks at the battle between hedge-fund king David Einhorn and Lehman. He’s called the company’s financial reporting into doubt and helped cause the latest downturn in its shares.

Mr. Einhorn, who runs a $6 billion hedge fund called Greenlight Capital, has been profiting from the Lehman’s growing pain. Critics say he is needlessly fanning fears about the precarious health of the financial industry at the very moment executives are struggling to stabilize their ailing companies…

He questioned how the company valued the assets on its books, and whether it was disclosing all the risks it faces… Lehman has been singled out because of the large role it played in the mortgage market and its reluctance to disclose information about its assets compared with other Wall Street banks.

“Lehman has been one of the deniers,” Mr. Einhorn, 39, said.

The Journal’s Heard on the Street column suggests Lehman may need to issue lots of shares or sell at least part of itself to “stop concerns about the firm affecting the wider financial system.”

Bloomberg reports a derivatives measure is signaling that the credit crunch is set to worsen again.

Ben speaks, buck surges

Fed chief Ben Bernanke moved to boost the dollar with comments that suggested it is too weak and is fueling inflation. That sent the buck surging, while sending the price of oil and gold down.

The Journal goes A1 with the news, saying it represented “an unmistakable break from what traders have long viewed as a U.S. policy of benign neglect toward the weak dollar.”

By jawboning the U.S. currency upwards, the Fed chairman hopes to address the twin ills of inflation and high oil prices. A stronger dollar pushes down the prices of imported goods.

But the tactic carries a risk. If the dollar resumes its tumble despite Mr. Bernanke’s words, he will face pressure to back them up with deeds—and none of the available ones are attractive. Raising interest rates, while helping lure foreigners back to the dollar, would squeeze an already-struggling economy. Intervening in markets to buy dollars, in concert with the Treasury, would violate the Bush administration’s laissez-faire philosophy and perhaps backfire by sparking a renewed bout of selling.

The FT calls it a “radical break” from a policy of not commenting on the dollar. This means that inflation has really got the Fed worried, though the Journal notes it’s just the latest instance of Bernanke breaking with convention.

The Journal also says down low that some are increasingly saying the greenback is too cheap. Goldman Sachs says the euro is 20 percent too high. The NYT runs wire copy on C4.

Down and out in Beverly Hills

The Journal exercises questionable news judgment in splashing on A3 news that Ed McMahon may lose his nearly $6 million house in Beverly Hills. The former Johnny Carson sidekick and Publishers Clearing House spokesman broke his neck a year and a half ago, can’t work, and is seriously behind on his payments. A3?

WaPo’s community Web site bombs

Conventional wisdom says newspapers need to go big, go “hyperlocal,” or go out of business. But the Journal on its Marketplace front reports that The Washington Post’s community Web site experiment is a big flop.

Like hundreds of other hyperlocal sites launched in the past few years, reflects a basic premise: Metro newspapers probably can’t compete with the Internet or cable TV in covering breaking national and international news, but they can dominate what happens in their backyards. offers detailed databases including every church, restaurant and school in Loudoun County, about 25 miles west of Washington, D.C. It embraces the idea that a high-school prom is as newsworthy as a debate over where to build a hospital, and that Little League deserves major-league attention. And it promises to let visitors to the site shape the news through blogs and photo and video submissions.

But remains little more than a skeleton of the site its architects pledged to build. One reason: the team of outsiders didn’t do enough to familiarize itself with Loudoun County or engage its 270,000 residents.

Yeah, if you’re going to go hyperlocal, you might want to try to get to know your hoped-for readers. Here’s the money quote from the former head of the project, now off to the Las Vegas Sun:

“I was the one who was supposed to know we should be talking to Rotary Club meetings every day,” Mr. Curley said. “I dropped the ball. I won’t drop it in Vegas, dude.”
Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.