Conspiracy theories: Sen. Shelby busts UAW; Cerberus kills dealers

Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. It affirms one of our secret desires: a wish to believe that someone is in control, that there are no unintended consequences.

Personally, I distrust government-centric conspiracy theories. Too many screw-ups operate in Washington, D.C. for me to believe they're capable of pulling off a quarter of what gets attributed to the CIA, NSA, FBI or whomever.

But recent events in the auto industry's crisis provide fodder for such theories. Here are two.

I'm not sure I believe either one, but each has a grain of plausibility.

Conspiracy theory No. 1: Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is trying to bust the UAW.

This is the real reason why he has been so vitriolic in his attacks on the Detroit 3. Alabama is home to four non-union auto plants, run by Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai. President-elect Barack Obama has said he will sign the Employee Free Choice Act, which will make the UAW's attempts to organize those factories enormously easier.

So Sen. Shelby won't sign off on an agreement whereby the UAW makes major contract concessions as its contribution to rescuing the Detroit 3. No, he needs the U.S. automakers to enter Chapter 11, get permission to tear up their UAW contracts, and leave the union in tatters, too weak to mount organizing drives in his state.

Of course, there's an alternate view: He can't stand the Detroit 3's domination of NASCAR.

Surely he realizes that pushing GM, Ford and Chrysler into Chapter 11 will lead them to slash their racing budgets. Even if they maintain a token presence in NASCAR, they will cut back on the number of teams and races they support. Sen. Shelby is sending a message: Pull out of Talladega. He wants Toyota to dominate at that track, and this is his way of making it happen.

Conspiracy theory No. 2: Cerberus is quietly using GMAC LLC and Chrysler Financial LLC to decimate dealer ranks.

The great stumbling block in any auto-industry rescue, according to this theory, is the dealers. The Detroit 3 have too many of them, and state franchise laws make it painfully expensive to shut them down.

GM, Ford and Chrysler can negotiate with the UAW, with their lenders and with their suppliers to craft a package where everybody loses something in hopes of keeping the automakers alive. But they cannot negotiate with every single one of their dealers. No one leader speaks for all dealers, the way Ron Gettelfinger speaks for the UAW.

Cerberus, which owns Chrysler and dearly wants out, knows that the fewer dealers Chrysler has, the easier it will be to sell the automaker, whether whole or in pieces. (What do I hear for Jeep?)

Cerberus also owns control of both GMAC and Chrysler Financial. And it is orchestrating a slaughter of dealers by means of those finance companies.

It began by having GMAC begin to pull floorplan financing for GM dealers. The highest-profile case was Bill Heard Enterprises, Inc. Once the largest Chevrolet dealership group in the world, Heard Enterprises entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy shortly after GMAC cancelled its floorplanning. The sale of Heard's stores closed this week with buyers for only six of the 14 dealerships on the block.

There may have been good reasons for GMAC to pull the floorplanning. But, says this theory, it also provided cover for future floorplan cancellations. If Heard Enterprises could lose its floorplan financing, why, so could anyone.

Now GMAC and Chrysler Financial can cancel floorplanning for anybody. Maybe they don't like a dealer's business practices, his balance sheet, or even the college football team he supports. Doesn't matter. It's been established that finance companies are tightening up, and anybody's fair game.

If Chrysler Financial pulls out of a great dealer, some other finance company may step in. But in today's market, a dealer who is good but not fantastic is unlikely to find another source of financing.

The state franchise laws can't stop this plot to whack dealers.

Can you think of a faster way to cull the dealer ranks?

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