U.S. Criticized Over Chrysler Financial Settlement

WASHINGTON (By John Crawley) - The U.S. Treasury may not have fully vetted the settlement of its interest in Chrysler Financial last year and not gotten a strong enough return for taxpayers, a bailout watchdog said in a report on Thursday.

The deal most clearly illustrated a broader finding of the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel: that the Obama administration may be too enamored of the politically appealing scenario of quickly cutting its stake in the auto business rather than patiently managing taxpayer interests.

"Treasury's efforts have in some cases lacked transparency and accountability," said former Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman, who headed the group's last report on the auto sector.

Kaufman stressed his group understood the administration faced tough decisions in orchestrating their overhaul and bankruptcy. Despite the criticism, the panel said in the report that the government's intervention was ambitious and the companies now "appear to be on a promising course."

However, he said taxpayers will likely lose billions on now-public GM, and Treasury may have "left money on the table" in its dealings with private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management over Chrysler Financial, the automaker's one-time consumer financing arm.

Treasury has recovered about half of the $50 billion extended to GM in return for nearly 61 percent of the restructured company, and about $2.2 billion of the $12 billion given to Chrysler in exchange for a 10 percent interest.

Treasury assumed 40 percent of Chrysler Financial's equity as part of a $3.5 billion pre-bankruptcy loan in January 2009 to the lending unit's parent, Chrysler Holding, which was owned at the time by Cerberus.

Treasury settled for $1.9 billion -- a loss of $1.6 billion on the loan -- in May 2010, transferring the stake to Cerberus, which became the sole owner.

Cerberus then agreed to sell the financing business for $6.3 billion to Toronto Dominion Bank in December, raising eyebrows over Treasury's handling of the settlement.

The panel found that Treasury officials apparently conducted "limited valuation due diligence, focusing on the merits of the offer from Cerberus," the report said.

Treasury, the panel said, expected that Chrysler Financial would be wound down, which would limit its value, and noted at the time of settlement the price paid by Cerberus was fair.

Chrysler Financial, however, continued to make investments in its business before finding a strategic partner in TD Bank.

Treasury disputed the conclusion it may not have fully vetted the Chrysler Financial settlement, saying it conducted several months of due diligence and hired an independent financial adviser to assist in valuation and check for other potential buyers.

The panel was appointed by Congress to review bailouts under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. General Motors Co and Chrysler, now under management control of Italy's Fiat Spa, received bailout and bankruptcy assistance from the Treasury in 2009.

Ron Bloom, the administration's pointman on auto restructuring, said in Detroit this week that the bailouts prevented widespread economic hardship.

He also said the Treasury is moving responsibly to exit the business and that turnarounds at GM and Chrysler have "yielded concrete returns remarkably quickly."

Chrysler's resurgence especially, he said, "has surprised just about everyone."

(Reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Richard Chang)

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