Fiat aims for Opel deal without running up debt

Fiat's concept, part of a wider plan to build a global powerhouse also includes Chrysler.

Fiat Group SpA aims to take over General Motors Corp.'s main European unit without running up debt in a deal that could require billions of euros (dollars) in government loan guarantees, Germany's economy minister said Monday. Fiat's concept - part of a wider plan to build a global powerhouse also including Chrysler - foresees keeping the Opel brand and the unit's three assembly plants in Germany, Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said after meeting Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne. However, he said there would be a "need for consolidation" and made clear that the future of an engine plant in Kaiserslautern, Germany would be in doubt. Asked what the plan might mean overall in terms of job losses or plant closures, Guttenberg said Marchionne "hasn't offered any specific numbers yet, but he described them as not being too dramatic." GM has been trying to find investors for its noncore and unprofitable assets to help stave off collapse. Germany and other countries are keen to safeguard the future of its European operations; GM says it has some 54,500 employees in Europe. Guttenberg said that "Fiat wants to get into this deal without debts of its own." He said the Turin, Italy-based company estimates the short-term financing needs - stemming from GM's debts and pension obligations - at some €5-7 billion Europe-wide, which could be covered by loan guarantees from various governments. Adam Opel GmbH employs about 25,000 workers in Germany. It and its sister brand Vauxhall also build cars in countries including Belgium, Poland, Spain and Britain. GM's European operations include Sweden's Saab, which also is expected to be part of any deal. Guttenberg described Fiat's proposal as "interesting" but stressed that the government would have to examine it further before reaching a verdict. Last week, he met with Canadian car parts maker Magna International Inc., which also has expressed an interest in taking a stake in Opel. Guttenberg noted that Marchionne's proposal is part of a Fiat plan to put together the biggest European auto maker and the world's No. 2. Talk of a possible takeover of GM's European operations comes just a week after Fiat signed an agreement to acquire an initial 20 percent stake in US automaker Chrysler LLC. Fiat said Sunday that it is evaluating the possible spinoff of its auto business to form a new listed company - possibly as soon as the summer. If it does successfully conclude the two deals, Fiat would be in the driver's seat of an alliance that last year collectively made some 5 million vehicles in a contracting market. Marchionne reckons that the only automakers to survive the crisis will need to be able to churn out between 5 million and 6 million vehicles a year. While analysts have touted the synergies of Fiat's deal for Chrysler, which inhabit complementary sectors of the auto market and different geographic regions, there is more skepticism among industry experts and unions in both Italy and Germany about a play for Opel. Both automakers focus on small cars, and Fiat has been making inroads into the German market. Employee representatives have made clear they worry about what a Fiat investment might mean for jobs.