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Saving the American Auto Industry

US car makers are in the news right now as just the latest in a line of beggars knocking on Washington’s door. They’re asking for $37 billion in support from cheap finance because, as GM’s Rick Waggoner puts it, “We made mistakes, and because circumstances beyond our control pushed us to the brink,” referring to the global economic downturn.”

Except for one thing. As I wrote in 2007, Ford has been making losses for years and the others haven’t done so well either. While they didn’t change their strategies, newcomers have set up shop in the US and grown and grown and grown – profitably.

The actions of the US car giants so reminds me of the 1960s in Britain, when the British motorcycle industry sank from world leader to bankrupt nothingness in a decade, and the British car industry was Nationalised to the point of rewarding failure with survival while punishing companies who were successful by not allowing weak competition to disappear.

The current US proposals for bail out are very uniquely US focussed. “It’s got to be US projects – it would by and large favour, on balance, US companies.” General Motor’s Fritz Henderson was reported as saying. Conveniently, there is a clause excluding support for US plants that have been built during the last 20 years. That means very little money for newcomers such as Honda, Toyota and VW who all make cars in the US in volume.

US workers working in those factories will not be protected, it seems. Except, for the most part, they don’t need to be.

There are problems for the US over this policy though. First off, there are the issues of illegal state support that will no doubt at some point be raised at the WTO. The US was the first to complain on behalf of Boeing that Airbus was receiving illegal money.

There is an even more serious issue hiding in the shadows here though. If the deal goes through and is seen by outsiders as discriminating against foreign investors, the attractiveness of the US as a place for inward capital flows will diminish – and with a double deficit in both government spending and trade the US Dollar relies on inward capital flows to support the greenback.

While the Dollar has been lifted of late by Barack Obama’s recent election victory and world woes, it is still based on weak fundamentals. I do think Obama will do a good job for the US here though, so perhaps the US will once again build the kind of budget surplus that accumulated under Bill Clinton’s Democrat Administrations.

As for the car industry, I can’t help thinking they still really don’t get it. I think it was GM who was talking of using the money from Uncle Sam to launch some 22 new models of greener vehicles.  Twenty two new models?! No wonder they can’t make a profit, they have too many models, too many brands.

They really need a clean out. But will they get one? Not if their political influence has anything to do with it. What they want is the bail out, not the clean out.


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