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Are automakers also too big to fail?

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"It's fairly easy to lose billions when your average wholesale price is $27,000," Mr. Spinella. "It's amazing some of the manufacturers are still around even now."

Although the auto industry is not nearly as important as in the 1950s, when a GM president is reported to have said, “... what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa,” the industry still has a long reach on Main Street. The US auto companies directly employ 355,000 workers, and another 4.5 million Americans are indirectly supported by the industry, according to a letter sent to US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson by six governors on Friday. Total auto employment amounts to 3.3 percent of the US civilian workforce and more than 36 percent of the US manufacturing workforce. [Editor’s note: .]

"If the auto companies ask for help, the federal government should give that help and give it quickly," says Elizabeth Boyd, press secretary to Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, one of the authors of the letter that asked for "immediate action."

The industry needs help on several fronts, Ms. Lindland of IHS Global Insight says. First, the companies need to find a way to shore up their captive finance companies, such as Ford Motor Credit. These financing arms are now rated well below investment grade and would pay more than 18 percent for new borrowings for themselves. Last Thursday, GMAC said it was trying to convert to a bank so it would be eligible for some of the $700 billion in bailout funds that Congress passed to address the financial and credit crisis.

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