DETROIT — Government aid and timely payments by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler have held off the predicted collapse of the nation's auto parts supply base, but industry officials say more bankruptcies are coming as the effects of Detroit's temporary factory closures continue to ripple through the economy.
Hundreds of companies large and small across the country make everything from bolts to axles to transmissions, shipping them to Detroit's Big Three factories as well as those of foreign automakers with U.S. plants.
Some supply parts to others that make larger components, creating a chain of companies that many thought would snap if payments were interrupted to firms already under extreme financial stress because of the U.S. auto sales slump.
While there have been about 20 supplier bankruptcies so far this year, most suppliers have managed to hang on despite Chrysler Group and General Motors Corp. entering bankruptcy protection and shuttering their factories for weeks to keep inventory under control.
"There was not the Armageddon that could have been there," said Chip
McClure, chairman and CEO of supplier ArvinMeritor Inc., which makes parts for cars and heavy trucks.
Suppliers already were hurting when the U.S. auto market went into a funk starting last year, dropping to an annual selling rate of around 9 million after peaking at 17 million in mid-decade.
South Carolina has a large base of auto-part vendors, including the Robert Bosch factory in North Charleston.
Many thought the whole system would collapse because the automakers would be unable to keep making payments.
But government cash infusions and payment guarantees for GM and Chrysler kept most suppliers afloat, said Dave Andrea, vice president of industry analysis and economics for the Original Equipment Suppliers Association.
Before filing for bankruptcy, GM made payments to suppliers early, which also helping cash-strapped companies avoid trouble, Andrea said.
Now, though, many are at risk of trouble again with GM and Chrysler temporarily shutting down some factories for up to three months because of growing inventories.
If the factories aren't running, suppliers have no income, and there's a 45-day lag between when they ship parts and when they are paid again.
"It isn't over yet," said Bob McKenna, president of the Motor Equipment Manufacturers Association, another industry trade group.
Large supplier Visteon Corp., once a unit of Ford Motor Co. and that company's biggest supplier, and Metaldyne Corp. already have filed for bankruptcy protection.
Barclays analyst Brian Johnson said in a note to investors Monday that Lear Corp., which already has missed interest payments, is vulnerable for a filing by June 30.
Supplier trade groups are lobbying for $8 billion to $10 billion more in loan guarantees to suppliers to help them raise money to buy raw materials and pay employees as Chrysler and GM resume production.
Without aid, they say, many cash-strapped suppliers won't make it.