Chrysler, GM Bailout Headed Back to the Front Burner

Last Updated Mar 26, 2009 10:27 AM EDT

The national spotlight has been off the U.S. auto industry for a while, but that's not going to last.

Chrysler and GM are fast approaching a March 31 deadline for the U.S. Treasury Department to rule whether so-called "viability plans" submitted by the companies are plausible, and whether the companies should receive additional money. That deadline could get postponed, but probably not more than a month.

At the same time, March U.S. auto sales reports are due April 1. That will serve to remind people of the crisis of falling demand for cars and trucks, in some cases despite highly advertised cash rebates, low interest financing, "employee pricing," etc.

J.D. Power and Associates today reported that retail new-vehicle sales during the first 17 selling days of March were down by 40 percent compared with the year-ago period. That's based on Power Information Network data from a sample of more than 10,000 dealerships across the United States. Those numbers don't count sales to daily rental fleets, businesses and government fleets. With fleet sales, which is how sales are usually reported, J.D. Power said March sales are projected to be about 798,000 units. That would be down 41 percent from about 1.4 million in the year-ago month.

All in all, a relatively low public profile for the last few weeks has probably been a good thing for the auto industry, considering the national mood and the scolding Chrysler, Ford and GM took the last time they were on the national front burner â€" remember the "corporate jets" debacle?

Last month, I half-jokingly blogged about a cartoon mob armed with torches and pitchforks stalking Wall Street types. Sure enough, a similar mob was on the cover of a special section of The New York Times today. In the Times cartoon, the mob has treed a worried looking bull and bear on top of the Capitol dome.

Last November, it might have been the Detroit Big Three. In the news cycle coming up, Chrysler and GM better hope that quote-unquote "Wall Street" continues in the hot seat.