The US Justice Department is assessing how big a criminal fine it can extract from Volkswagen AG over emissions-cheating without putting the automaker out of business, according to Bloomberg sources.

The government and VW are trying to reach a settlement by January, the sources said, before a new US administration comes into office and replaces the political appointees who have been overseeing the process. 

The US is also trying to settle a civil case with Deutsche Bank. Bloomberg suggested the department is showing that in some cases, it will take a company's financial health into account.

The report said it was not clear what penalty range the US was considering in the criminal case against Volkswagen. The company had net liquidity of EUR28.8bn(US$32.4bn) as of 30 June, has targeted average net liquidity at EUR20bn to ensure funding needs and protect the company's credit rating and generates several billions of dollars of cash each quarter as well as being able to tap into a credit line or raise capital if necessary to pay its obligations.

Bloomberg noted Volkswagen has already agreed to pay an industry-record $16.5bn in civil litigation fines in the US. There are also outstanding civil claims from several states and as much as $9.2bn in investor lawsuits in Germany, where it's also under criminal investigation.

"The department doesn't pick a number in a complete vacuum," William Stellmach, a former federal prosecutor now at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in Washington, told Bloomberg. "There are a number of cases where it has acknowledged that the impact of a financial penalty on a company was a factor in deciding what that penalty should be."

VW has plenty of money to meet further fines, particularly because penalties tend to be paid over long time periods, Joel Levington, a Bloomberg Intelligence credit analyst, said.

"Despite all the damage that its reputation has taken, VW is still a company that might be back to generating $5bn in free cash flow in 2018 and, when you generate that kind of cash, it absolves a lot of sins," he said. The Justice Department began negotiations on the criminal penalty in August, a Bloomberg source said.