Not Your Father’s Auto Industry

If you’re tempted to believe the proliferating rhetoric about America’s withering automobile industry, please listen to Dan Griswold’s Cato podcast today or read the paper he and I wrote on the subject before deciding to drink the Kool-Aid.

The declining fortunes of American icons Ford and GM have inspired numerous commentaries about the demise of the U.S. automobile industry. But the top 10 selling cars and top 10 selling light trucks in the United States are all made in America. U.S. output of motor vehicles and parts was also 68 percent higher in 2005 than in 1993, which compares favorably with overall manufacturing output growth of 56 percent over the same period.

How can that be, you might ask, when Ford and GM lost a combined $16.7 billion in 2005 and together plan to eliminate more than 60,000 jobs in the next few years?

Well, this isn’t your father’s automobile industry.

The days when the “Big Three” and the U.S. auto industry were synonymous, and when seeing a foreign car on the street prompted rubbernecking are long gone. Today Honda, Toyota, and Nissan (and other Japanese, German, and Korean companies) are all important and growing players in the U.S. auto industry.

Since the early 1980s, Japanese—followed by German and Korean—automakers have been building production facilities in America. These companies, which employ American workers, pay local and federal taxes, and buy most of their parts and materials from other U.S. suppliers, are every bit as much a part of the domestic auto industry as the Big Three (or “Big Two and a Half,” now that Chrysler is just a division of Daimler-Chrysler). While the Big 2.5 still dominate U.S. production, the foreign-owned share continues to rise, approaching one-third of total domestic production today.

That’s great news for U.S. consumers, whose choices are no longer constrained by the high-priced, low-quality offerings of what was once a domestic oligopoly. Since 1993, the general price level in the United States has risen 38.2 percent, but the price level of a new vehicle has increased by only 4.1 percent.

Certainly, the shifting industry landscape has produced winners and losers within the United States. Most of the foreign nameplate plants have been built in the American South, or otherwise outside of the rust belt states (with a few notable exceptions). But none of these plants, save one (a joint venture involving GM), employ unionized workers, and their market shares have been increasing. Of course, there’s much more to this changing picture than the fact that one group is unionized and the other isn’t, but it is an interesting fact, no?

The state of Michigan has by far been the biggest loser in this transformation. The state has seen a large decline in jobs (and tax revenues), and the auto industry promises to be the marquis issue in this fall’s governor’s race. The Republican nominee, Dick DeVos, recently lambasted the Bush administration for not doing more to arrest the decline of Michigan’s auto producers. Unfortunately, that’s par for the course for Republicans of late, who increasingly seem to have never met a bailout they didn’t like.

The government has no business interfering in the marketplace—particularly one that is working so well for the vast majority of Americans. But if there is any action the Bush administration can and should take—which would incidentally help U.S. auto producers—it would be to revoke some or all of the 160 antidumping measures in place against 21 different types of steel products from 32 different countries. U.S. government intervention on behalf of the domestic steel industry has created a dangerously concentrated market, and without adequate steel imports, steel producers can and have run roughshod over their customers, including the auto producers.

Ultimately, the decisions that brought successful foreign nameplate auto producers to invest in U.S. facilities, as opposed to exporting from production platforms abroad, are based on a variety of factors that are subject to change. Market considerations like transportation costs, labor and materials costs, access to transportation, and access to materials all ultimately contribute to such investment decisions. When access to raw materials is hampered, and thus more costly (as it is with steel in the United States), the benefits of the other considerations are mitigated.

Today, U.S. prices for corrosion-resistant steel (the primary component used in auto bodies) are $100 per ton higher in the United States than in Europe, and $200 per ton higher than in China. At some point, the price differentials will render production of autos abroad for export to the United States more cost-efficient than investment in the United States. If Honda, Toyota, Nissan (and for that matter, Ford and GM) reach that conclusion, then we’ll be witnessing a genuine crisis in the U.S. automobile industry.