A deployed Takata airbag in a Honda sedan Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Takata Lifelines Scrutinized by Carmakers to Minimize Liability

Who will purchase the financially-embattled airbag maker Takata? Five companies are reportedly in the running, but the added costs could keep even more potential buyers far away.

Takata Corp. and some of the world’s biggest carmakers face an extensive — and expensive — to-do list as they try to resolve the worst safety crisis in the auto industry’s history.

Executives for the Tokyo-based maker of airbags are scheduled to meet in Japan with Honda Motor Co. and officials from some of more than a dozen other customers this week, according to people with knowledge of the situation. The talks are prompted by five bids made for the beleaguered Takata after months of concern about its solvency.

The central issue for Takata’s customers — which include General Motors Co. and Volkswagen AG — is how those takeover bids divvy up responsibility for paying billions of dollars in recall costs and potential legal liabilities stemming from faulty airbags. Takata is at the heart of the largest auto-safety recall in U.S. history after some of its airbags ruptured and killed at least 15 people, prompting repairs that could exceed 100 million devices worldwide.

Automakers have been reluctant to help pay Takata’s legal bills, yet they may now be willing to share that burden rather than have potential buyers drop their bids, or put all or part of the company into bankruptcy, according to people familiar with the deliberations. A bankruptcy could shift the financial fallout onto the automakers and disrupt their supply of parts for recalled and new vehicles, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

“Carmakers are in a tricky situation at this point,” said Koji Endo, a Tokyo-based auto analyst at SBI Securities Co. “It’s unthinkable to ask Takata to pay all the costs. If the automakers are not making satisfactory concessions, some of the bidders may eventually pull out of the process.”

Takata’s airbags are inside about one of every five cars assembled globally — including by the top three automakers each in the U.S., Japan and Germany. The U.S. and Japan have ordered recalls of all Takata airbags that lack an absorbent. Researchers hired by automakers have found that moisture seeping into Takata’s inflators can lead them to rupture and spray shards of metal and plastic at motorists and passengers. About 90 million air bags have to be replaced in the two countries alone.

On Friday, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published reports from three engineering firms that detailed why the airbags failed, showing that the cause was long-term exposure to heat and humidity. The reports also showed that Takata failed to report problems when they first arose.

The company said in a statement that “lapses in testing and reporting are unacceptable and inconsistent with Takata’s policies and standards.” Takata also said it has established new positions — a chief safety assurance and accountability officer and a full-time vice president for ethics and compliance, to make sure the problems don’t happen again.

Takata has lost nearly three-quarters of its market capitalization during the past year, dropping its value to about $287 million. The shares fell 3.6% to close at 347 yen ($3.45) Monday in Tokyo trading.

Takata’s financial adviser, Lazard Ltd., has proposed setting up an independent legal fund using contributions from Takata, new investors and automakers, according to people familiar with the proposal. Honda, which is Takata’s largest customer and one of its leading shareholders, pushed back on that idea, another person said. Representatives for Takata and Honda declined to comment on the meetings or deliberations over air-bag repair and legal costs.

Takata and Lazard’s four-month search for buyers culminated last week in bids from KKR & Co., Autoliv Inc., Key Safety Systems Inc., Flex-N-Gate Corp., and a combined offer from Daicel Corp. and Bain Capital. The parts maker wants to whittle those suitors down to two or three candidates by October and then finalize a deal by year’s end. Bidders were asked to submit proposals covering multiple scenarios for how Takata’s recall costs and legal liabilities may be handled, a person familiar with the process said last week.

Of Takata’s 718 billion yen ($7.14 billion) in sales last year, 36% came from airbags. The company also supplies seat belts, steering wheels, electronics, seat covers, and head and arm rests.

Besides Honda, Takata’s domestic customers include Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Mazda Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Subaru maker Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. The number of vehicles recalled in Japan will reach about 19.6 million, according to the transport ministry.

“We’ve got a huge group of people who are very active in that and working with other suppliers so that we can deliver on these recalls as quickly as we can and take care of these customers,” Bill Fay, head of U.S. sales for the Toyota brand, said last week. “It’s a big undertaking in among everything else that happens on a day-to-day basis in the industry.”

Other affected carmakers include BMW AG, Daimler AG, Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc. The cost of recalling all non-desiccated air-bag inflators will be 1.28 trillion yen ($12.74 billion), Takaki Nakanishi, an analyst for Jefferies Group LLC, said in a report published in May.

By Craig Trudell, Masatsugu Horie and David Welch, with assistance from Ma Jie, Elisabeth Behrmann, John Lippert, Takako Taniguchi, Keith Naughton, Yuki Hagiwara and Jamie Butters.

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