Monday, November 10, 2008

Wall Street Journal-America's Two Auto Industries

Government Aid to GM, Ford, Chrysler Could Preserve Old Way of Building and Selling Cars
Can you imagine life without General Motors Corp.? That's now an urgent question facing America's political leaders.

GM survived for 100 years, steering through two world wars, the Great Depression, and all the booms and busts in between. But on Friday, GM said it faces a substantial risk of financial collapse by the middle of next year unless the economy makes a significant improvement, the capital market freeze thaws, or the government provides the money to sustain the company through the downturn.

The Democratic Congress and President-elect Barack Obama signaled last week they are willing to lend a hand. "The auto industry is the backbone of American manufacturing and a critical part of our attempt to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Mr. Obama said Friday.

So the question isn't whether Washington is willing to offer more public money to help auto companies survive. There even appears to be a consensus on how much: Up to $50 billion. The tougher question is what's Washington's goal?

First, Congress and Mr. Obama will need to decide what they mean by "the auto industry."

America has two auto industries. The one represented by GM, Ford and Chrysler is Midwestern, unionized, burdened with massive obligations to retirees, and shackled to marketing and product strategies that have roots reaching back to the early 1900s.

The other American auto industry is largely Southern and non-union, owes relatively little to the few retirees it has, and enjoys a variety of advantages because its Japanese, European and Korean owners launched operations in this country relatively recently. Their factories are newer, their brand images and marketing strategies are more coherent -- Toyota uses three brands in the U.S. to GM's eight -- and they have cars designed for the competitive global market that exists today.

Honda Motor Co. sells one basic Civic world-wide. Ford sells two different versions of its rival Focus compact car. Ford is engineering one Focus to take advantage of global economies of scale, but the new car won't hit the U.S. market until 2010.

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