Uncertainty over the future of GM Europe as three bidders compete for takeover.

By David Bailey on Jul 13, 09 10:17 PM in Automotive

Canadian auto-parts supplier Magna is said to be optimistic still that it will sign a deal with GM in the near future but has postponed a key supervisory board meeting to discuss the issue, following a failure - so far - to resolve issues including access to intellectual property rights and growing markets.

Magna - backed by Russia's state owned Sberbank and Gaz group - was seen as the preferred bidder by the German government as it offered the prospect of fewer job losses in Germany. The German government has made available a bridging loan of €1.5 billion to keep Opel going.

Just before GM entered bankruptcy, GM Europe (which employs around 55,000 workers), was separated from its US parent and placed in a trust fund. Whether to be able to present a number of potential bids to the trust fund, or whether to drive a better bargain with Magna, GM never signed an exclusivity deal with Magna and has continued to talk to other bidders, notably RHJ International and Beijing Automotive.

Both are thought to have enhanced their offers. Fiat is sitting this out on the sidelines, despite Marchione's desire to build Fiat into a global player.

Needless to say there is much speculation over all three bids. RHJ's chances are perceived as having gone up and down - down after reporting a billion Euro loss for the last year. Nevertheless, RHJ still claims to have plenty of cash to finance the deal .

Meanwhile, Beijing Auto has offered €660 million in equity for a 51% stake in Opel, with GM keeping a 49% stake. Beijing hopes to get its hands on GM's technology (including alternative drivetrains), and is thought to be looking to cut capacity in higher cost Belgium and Germany - rather than in the UK - and to produce GM models in large numbers in China.

The Chinese market is growing rapidly and probably offers more opportunity than the Russian market which Magna is targeting. A Beijing deal would also offer GM more upside benefit with a bigger stake in a new GM Europe.

However, Beijing's offer is thought to have raised concerns over technology transfer in Germany. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, an internal German economics ministry document raises concerns that Opel could enter a "difficult dependency" on Beijing.

All this still leaves some major question marks over Vauxhall in the UK. The firm employs around 5,500 workers in the UK, with assembly plants at Ellesmere Port and Luton. Concerns remain that UK workers will suffer job cuts especially if a Magna deal goes ahead, in part because of the financial support coming from Germany to protect jobs there, and also because it is easier to lay off workers in the UK than on the continent.

Magna has said it will look for up to 9,000 redundancies in Europe. Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has stated that he is prepared to offer loan guarantees to support GM Vauxhall operations in the UK. That will probably need to be put in place as soon as a takeover is agreed in order to safeguard British jobs.

The odds are still in favour of Magna acquiring GM Europe, but those odds have shortened as RHJ and Beijing have put in credible offers over the last few weeks. GM now has a 'Plan B' if the Magna deal does not come off.

Professor David Bailey works at Coventry University Business School.

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