Chrysler LLC has enough money to get through the month because it is using cash at a slower rate than it was earlier this year, Chief Financial Officer Ronald Kolka said Wednesday.
His comments seemed aimed at dispelling a growing perception that the smallest of Detroit's automakers may be on the verge of collapse.
Compared with General Motors Corp., the other U.S. automaker that has borrowed government money, Chrysler's position appeared more precarious last week after GM said it did not need $2 billion in loans it had previously requested for this month.
Kolka said Chrysler can get through March without help, too. "I don't need anything by March 31 more than I have right now," he told The Detroit News.
Chrysler still seeks $5 billion from the government, in addition to $4 billion that it received in early January when it halted production at all its plants after demand for vehicles plunged. CEO Robert Nardelli said earlier this week that Chrysler needed to know by the end of the month if it would receive those funds.
As Chrysler strives to demonstrate progress in its debt-reduction and restructuring efforts by the March 31 deadline set by the government, Kolka said the U.S. Treasury Department is taking part in the negotiations with Chrysler's bank creditors.
"The government is the group that's going to come in to put money, so they have the leverage," Kolka said. "What they're going to do is say, 'Lenders, if you want my money to help Chrysler become more viable or more profitable, you may have to give me something in exchange for that.' "
In an effort to slash its debt, as required by the federal loan terms, Chrysler made a proposal to its lenders, which was rejected, Kolka said. "The negotiations ultimately will largely be between those two," he said of the banks and the Treasury.
The Treasury's direct role in the talks suggests the government may start flexing its muscle more as it tries to assist the auto, financial and other sectors to restructure during a perilous downturn.
GM has run into difficulty, too, with its debt holders, many of whom hold unsecured debt. GM is grappling with bondholders who are balking at the debt-for-equity terms it is offering.
Across the auto industry, suppliers, dealers and automakers are vying for government aid, though Ford Motor Co. has not requested emergency loans.
Compared with GM, Chrysler's prospects are widely considered weaker. The Auburn Hills automaker's best hope, many industry experts say, is to conclude a proposed alliance with Italy's Fiat SpA.
That is what Chrysler hopes to do, but it has also drafted a plan to demonstrate its viability as a stand-alone company.
"We don't think we need to count on Fiat, although if Fiat came in, they'd be a significant enhancement to our plan," Kolka said. He said Chrysler's plan to survive on its own is based on much more conservative sales assumptions overall than GM's plan, which anticipates a larger and faster recovery.
"Our approach was to be as conservative as possible," Kolka said.
Some industry experts, such as forecasters CSM Worldwide in Northville, question Chrysler's assumption that it can hold on to a 10 percent market share.
But Kolka said, "Even though we're the smallest, we have the best track record of maintaining our small market share."
Although demand for vehicles remains extremely weak, Chrysler and GM are both faring better this month than they were in January, when they were paying bills but not generating much revenue because of unusually long production halts. Automakers book revenue when a vehicle leaves the factory, while suppliers get paid after parts are delivered. "Now that plants are back up and running again, we're in more of a positive cash flow mode. March is a little bit better month for us," Kolka said.
Because of the timing of payments to suppliers, they now face a severe cash crunch resulting from the production slump in January. Meanwhile, the automakers are breathing easier. Cash is coming in, and "we don't have a lot of supplier payments this month," Kolka said.