Can I Have Some Privacy, Please? - Autoline with John McElroy

This past weekend I was at the Global Leadership Conference at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. If you're not a CEO or vice president at one of the car companies or their main suppliers, you probably haven't heard of the GLC before. It's not like they keep it a secret, but it's not well known outside the inner circle of upper management in the auto industry.
So how come I know about it? Barely anyone in the media is ever invited to the GLC, but I've been fortunate enough to be the MC for the past few years. So I get a front row seat at it all, and it's a great place to take the pulse of what the big boys (and gals) are all talking about.

Just to give you an idea of the kind of executives who attend this conference, the speaker's list included Rick Wagoner, the CEO of General Motors; Jim Press, the new Vice Chairman of Chrysler; Steve Miller, the CEO of Delphi; and Derek Kusak, the Group Vice President of product development at Ford.

Officially, the conference is off the record so I can't tell you exactly who said what. But I did learn some things along the way, and I want to share with you one of the most important developments that could end up affecting us all.

There were three main discussion themes to the conference: equity, energy and emerging markets. But it's specifically private equity that I want to talk about.

Many American CEOs feel they're at a disadvantage running a publicly owned company these days. They're under a barrage of regulations mainly having to deal with the tedious legislation called Sarbanes-Oxley. This grew out of the Enron scandal to try and keep companies honest. But management feels the so-called "safe harbor" rules that they have to follow is stifling them. A financial review, for example, that should take less than an hour can now take over six hours to complete. They feel they're spending too much time reviewing what they've done, rather than planning for the future.

They also feel they're at a disadvantage having to close the books and issue earning's guidance every three months to satisfy Wall Street's penchant for quarterly reports. That forces them into short-term thinking in an industry that desperately needs to plan for the long run. The feeling is that publicly traded companies are at a disadvantage to privately held ones, which don't have to deal with any of this.

Since Chrysler and a number of major supplier companies have been bought out and taken private, the feeling is this trend is going to grow. But some executives worry out loud about whether this is good for the country or not.

Here's why they worry.

The stock market has been the greatest creator of wealth for the middle class for the last century (for the rich, too, but these rich executives were not worrying about the rich). If more and more companies go private, the public will not be able to invest in those companies and share in the wealth they create. In fact, the only way you can share in that wealth is if you're rich enough to be an investor in one of the private equity funds.

The auto industry overwhelmingly sells its cars to people in the middle class. If those people are increasingly denied access to the greatest engine of wealth creation, well, what happens to car sales a decade or two from now? Or to the economy in general?

No one has any answers to this dilemma, but the first step in trying to solve a problem is shining a spotlight on it. This is the first time I've heard this issue raised. Now you've learned about it, too. So spread the word because this is definitely worth of a national debate.

Autoline Detroit
Airs every Sunday at 7:00AM on Speed and 10:30AM on Detroit Public Television

Synopsis of next week's show - "CH-CH-CH-CH CHANGES"
Evolve, remake, transform...whichever verb you choose it all comes down to major change in the auto industry these days on many fronts. From the revolutionary new contracts with the United Auto Workers to the surprising talent drain from Toyota to Detroit, the automotive press has been staying up late trying to keep up with all the change going on. This week Autoline Detroit devotes the show to updating and analyzing many of these recent disruptive automotive moves.

Joining John McElroy on the panel to discuss these changes is David Welch from BusinessWeek and Tom Walsh from the Detroit Free Press.

And as we near this November's 25th anniversary of the first American- built Honda Accord, John also takes a look at the newly redesigned '08 Accord.

Last week's show - "The Best in Trucks...So Far"

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