Monday, January 12, 2009

Shellacked At the Auto Show

My latest stint at Chrysler might have been short-lived, but my automotive résumé was enough to get me into the big Auto Show one more time. Ironically enough, I wasn’t with any of the automobile companies this time. Instead, I was a spokesmodel of sorts for a bank I had never heard of. It occurred to me that I might mention my long history in the banking industry, but I thought better of it, as several of the banks I had worked for had already kicked the bucket, and there were whispers all day that one more was on its way out the door. Besides, knowing the difference between prime and Libor wasn’t going to make much of a difference in this job.

“Just tell everyone who will listen that auto loans are available,” the bank’s marketing director, a jaunty woman half my age, told me. “Tell them we’re lending. If anyone is curious, whisper that we have friends on Wall Street who have figured out how to slip auto loans into the mortgage-backed securities that the Treasury is buying. And above all, keep smiling.”

“Will do,” I said, half suppressing a laugh.

And so there I was at the big show, except that it wasn’t nearly as big as I remembered it, talking about auto loans all day long and smiling at everyone, no matter how depressing the conversation about the automakers got.

“Jimmy says he might run out of money as soon as next month,” one of my former coworkers told me, loud enough for at least five reporters walking by to hear.

“Well, we’re making new car loans left and right,” I replied, beaming. “If that won’t turn things around, I don’t know what will.”

“Yes, even if your company goes bankrupt, you can still qualify for an auto loan,” I told one skeptical assembly worker. “How can we do it? The government’s mortgage bailout now includes new car loans,” I whispered — well, okay, I was not really whispering, but shouting a little less loud over the Kid Rock music blasting nearby. “We’re the first bank to qualify for this new program.” I knew I was ad libbing and had wandered slightly off script, but I figured there was very little chance that I would get in any trouble for it.

“Loan or not, I think I’ll have to wait a few years to buy a new car,” he said. A lot of people were saying the same thing.

At the end of the day, when most of the attendees had already wandered out of the hall, a man came over with a paint sprayer that looked a little larger than what you would use to paint a fender. “We’re making new car loans left and — hey, what are you doing?” The man had walked right past me and was spraying some kind of clear paint on the ten-foot logo behind me.

“Didn’t you hear?” he said. “The word is, the whole auto industry is getting shellacked.”

But I’m not with the auto industry,” I said, making sure I kept smiling. “We’re in more like the financial sector. This is, you know, a bank.”

“Oh. Oh. That’s different,” he said, as he stepped back and waved his arm at a backhoe that was driving by. “Hey, Tommy, here’s one,” he shouted. “Here, you’d better stand back,” he said, as he took me by the arm and led me several steps away as the backhoe operator made short work of the aluminum frame that had been holding up the nylon banner with the bank’s logo, and then the rest of the bank’s booth.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Well, the auto industry might be getting shellacked, but the financial sector is getting leveled,” he said. Meanwhile, the booth I had been standing at all day had turned into a heap about four inches high.

“Oh, yeah, I think I heard something about that,” I said, still smiling.

A security guard walked up. “Hey, did you hear about our new car loans?” I asked.

“Yeah, I did,” he replied. “It’s really a shame.”

Update: On Friday, January 16, Chrysler Financial got a $1.5 billion loan from the Treasury to make auto loans. I didn’t have advance knowledge of this and wasn’t referring to Chrysler Financial in my story.