General Motors' board is weighing four options for its German-based Opel unit, including keeping the operation or letting it slide into bankruptcy protection, a person familiar with the options said Wednesday.
The 13-member board, meeting in Detroit on Wednesday, is also discussing whether it should accept bids from a consortium of Magna International . and Russia's Sberbank or a competing offer from RHJ International, a Brussels-based investment house, the person told the Associated Press.
A recommendation, which would have to be approved by the trust overseeing Opel, could come later tonight with a formal announcement Thursday.
Ruesselsheim-based Adam Opel, whose brands include Britain's Vauxhall, was transferred to a government-backed trust just ahead of parent GM's bankruptcy. The trust holds 65% of Opel, with GM holding 35%.
Presumably, GM could also wait to make a decision on the fate of Opel at a later date, though that seems increasingly unlikely.
GM for months has stated its preference for the RHJ bid because the Brussels-based private equity firm is more likely to restructure Opel while preventing GM's car designs and other technology from going to companies that compete against GM brands.
But German government officials have supported the Magna-Sberbank bid because they think it would preserve the most jobs in a critical election year. State-owned Sberbank has ties to Russian automaker GAZ, and GM is worried the Russian automaker could use Opel technology to compete with Chevrolet, which has grown in Russia.
If the board goes with RHJ or decides to keep Opel, it would set up a high-stakes confrontation with the German government, which has offered $6.5 billion in credit to support the Magna bid and wants to show it is preserving jobs in advance of the Sept. 27 election.
It also could set up a fight with Opel's powerful union, IG Metall. Opel employs 25,000 people in Germany, about half of GM Europe's total workforce. Up to six Opel plants could be closed in order to match factory capacity to sales, the person familiar with GM's options said.
A person close to Germany-based Opel Trust, who was not authorized to speak on the matter officially, said the trust would be involved with an announcement only if GM decides to sell the unit to one of the two investment bidders.
If GM decides to keep Opel, or if it does not come to a decision, or — least likely — GM decides to let Opel go into bankruptcy protection, then the announcement would have to come from the GM board, the person said.
The specter of such a decision drew derision in a newspaper interview from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is seeking to become chancellor in national elections Sept. 27.
"Magna's concept to take Opel over is the best offer," he was quoted as saying by the Mainzer Allgemeine Zeitung, reflecting the view widely held by the German government.
"I warn against lightly throwing around the word 'insolvency,"' he said, adding that German politicians had done everything possible and that "now it is time for General Motors' board to finally make a decision."
Meanwhile, German workers and labor groups waited anxiously. Rainer Einenkel, Opel's workers' council president at its Bochum plant, told the radio program Deutschlandradio Kultur that Opel's shaky situation threatened thousands of workers at Opel plants and at many parts manufacturers.
"We want the locations, the factories preserved," Einenkel said.
On Tuesday, the European Employee Forum of General Motors, the European Metalworkers' Federation, and other European unions called for a prompt decision, fearful that more delays could put Opel and Vauxhall at further risk.
"What we are now witnessing is GM wasting time and money by once more delaying the final decision with an incomprehensible strategy," the groups said in a statement.
GM Europe on Wednesday offered only that it "does not provide any details for GM board of directors meetings," and would not say if or when any word might come on Opel's fate.
Opel spokesman Frank Klaas said only that there would be an announcement "when a decision has been made."
Under the terms of the Magna bid, Magna and Sberbank would get a 55% stake in Opel. GM would hold onto a 35% stake and Opel workers would get 10%.
RHJ sweetened its offer last week, agreeing to provide 300 million euros in cash compared with 275 million euros offered earlier and would expect loan guarantees of 3.2 billion euros from the government, down from 3.8 billion euros.