With GM nearly bankrupt, can America manage?

General Motors (GM) most likely has just a few days before it files for bankruptcy, marking the final death gasps of a company that once controlled 50 percent of the North American vehicle market and sported a peak market value (in April 2000) of $54 billion.

As I've posted, GM's $74 billion in losses and market share decline -- to 19 percent in 2008 -- are due to its failure to adapt to change. And so, after a 98 percent plunge, this week GM is likely to lose most of its remaining $873 million in market value.

While the bankruptcy is great news for America's bankruptcy lawyers and investment bankers -- the pilot fish of American business, snapping up the scraps of food left behind by the economic sharks who create new wealth -- GM's demise also raises a more troubling question: Can America manage? Or more specifically, can American managers still create world-leading industries or have we lost it?

First, let's examine GM's pending bankruptcy and the huge amount of money to be made off it by those economic pilot fish. Weil, Gotshal & Manges, the New York firm handling the Lehman case, recently sought approval for billings of $55 million for just three months' work, and is expected to get more from GM.

GM, which has already gotten $19.4 billion in U.S. debt, will require almost four times more -- $40 billion to $70 billion in debtor-in-possession financing -- to create a new version of GM. Bankers will cash in on the GM bankruptcy gold rush as well.

America has recently proven itself to be a failure when it comes to sustaining an automobile industry and our finance industry has only succeeded in gaining control of the global economic system -- right before nearly wiping it out. So can the U.S. economic system still do anything right?

There are three industries where the U.S. still excels:

  • Personal high tech. I'd give Apple (APPL) the nod for world-leading product innovation.
  • Entertainment. Many Hollywood studios are still able to churn out very popular and in some cases, high quality, movies and other content.
  • Biotechnology. Companies like Genentech (now owned by a Swiss pharmaceutical firm, Roche) and Genzyme (GENZ) have developed profitable and innovative cures for terrible diseases.

What does this tell us? The key to American business success is managing brainpower -- not assembly lines. If you're not part of that brainpower, you are likely to be an economic legacy rather than a creator of the future. What to do with all the people who lose their jobs in the wake of GM's pending bankruptcy is an American economic challenge of epic proportions.

Does American management have the brainpower to solve it?

Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates. He also teaches management at Babson College. His eighth book isYou Can't Order Change: Lessons from Jim McNerney's Turnaround at Boeing. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.

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