While Japan may be a “closed market” in the eyes of some, imported cars from America are all the rage in South Korea. Honda is planning on sending no fewer than six American-made cars; the Civic, Accord, Odyssey, CR-V, Crosstour and Pilot will all be sent to South Korea as Honda attempts to become a net exporter of American made vehicles.
When we last checked in on the low-level trade war between China and the US, which was sparked by President Obama’s 35% tariff on Chinese tires, the Chinese government had ruled that American large cars and SUVs were being “dumped” on the Chinese market, but wasn’t doing anything about it. Now, Reuters reports that China is doing something about it, namely saying that it plans to impose tariffs of up to 22% on imports of American-built large cars and SUVs. And the “up to” is key: GM and Chrysler are being hit hardest (unsurprisingly), while American-made BMW, Mercedes and Acuras are receiving considerably lower tariffs.
Still, China only imports $1.1b worth of vehicles in this category, whereas the US imported some $1.8b worth of Chinese tires prior to the Obama tariffs. Like most of the news around Chinese-American relations, this is more saber-rattling than substance. But with economic conditions still shaky in the US, and a Presidential election getting into full swing, small spats can escalate into larger confrontations. And with China surpassing the US as the largest market for cars in the world, it’s probably no coincidence that this simmering conflict largely involves cars and car-related products.
With a 35% import tax on new cars, Argentina is already a touch market for foreign brands seeking to bring cars into the country. But the Argentinean government has just made it little bit harder by demanding that importers export an equal amount of Argentina-made goods for every car imported. As a result, Bloomberg reports that Porsche’s importer is exporting Malbec wines and olives, Mitsubishi’s importer is getting into the peanut export game, and Subaru’s representative is shipping chicken feed to Chile. BMW, which has had recent difficulties importing into Argentina, is focusing on its core business, exporting auto parts and upholstery… and a little processed rice to make up the difference. But why are these major manufacturers getting into all kinds of strange side businesses just because Argentina wants to improve its trade balance and foreign currency reserves? Simple: Argentina is South America’s second-largest economy, and it’s been growing at over 5% per year since 2007 (i.e. when other markets were shrinking). So if the government wants imports balanced with exports, well, Porsche’s importer is just going to have to get into the wine business, isn’t he?
In many ways it was a strange scene. The president of Korea, speaking in a US factory that builds the replacement to a car that was once imported from Korea. The president of the United States, speaking in a factory that can only competitively build subcompact cars because of a government-ordered “innovative labor practices” that unionized workers were not able to ratify. In many ways, both President Obama and President Lee were visiting the graveyard of their ideals. Which is another way of saying, that this meeting symbolizes a new pragmatism.
American workers may not be getting paid what they once were, but they’re building cars at a profit. Korea may not be exporting as many cars to the US, but it’s putting the squeeze on Japan. Professor Kim Seung-jin of Hankuk University sums up the dynamic in the Korea Times, saying
There is no free lunch in the world… Korea should get into the U.S. market prior to Japan and China. The more we delay the less the advantage. You should know that the world is still living off the American market
This deal probably won’t boost US auto exports to Korea in the way Obama is hoping for, but it’s a reminder that US manufacturing is slowly becoming more competitive… and that our market remains an attractive place to do business. Free trade is necessarily a messy business for politicians, and protectionism might have kept Orion’s wages higher or Aveo production in Korea. But by embracing free trade, these two presidents could walk into Orion, live up to the downsides of free trade, and promise a stronger, more sustainable economic future.
George Orwell’s warning, that “the first victim of war is the truth,” apparently applies equally to trade wars. On Friday, Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow (both D-MI) wrote the United States Trade Representative to express their concern over “reported draft regulations” of China’s New Energy Vehicle plan, noting
We are concerned that these draft regulations continue China’s long history of breaking international trade rules.
Given that the ongoing low-level trade war between the US and China, this was a predictable bit of saber-rattling. But if Levin and Stabenow’s political motivations are easy to understand, the logic that leads them to believe China’s New Energy Vehicle plan is a violation of international trade rules is not. Meanwhile, neither the Senators nor the USTR appear not to have heard about another, more serious possible trade issue arising from China’s headlong dash towards electric vehicles. Sounds like a job for The Truth About Cars…
Even the most casual of TTAC readers will have noticed that we frequently feature stories about the strength of the Chinese economy and the increasing importance that China has to automakers everywhere. This afternoon I was actually standing on the factory floor of a noted “transplant” automaker and I found myself wondering: Is it too late for the United States to follow the “Chinese way” to create more opportunities for domestic vehicle production?
WARNING: Do not read any further if you are easily enraged by protectionism…
In order to produce and sell cars in China, foreign firms are required to form joint partnerships with a Chinese firm. With a ten-year, $15b government EV stimulus in the works, automakers are complaining that a requirement to build EVs in partnership with Chinese firms amounts to government-mandated barrier to market access. A foreign automaker executive complains to the Wall Street Journal that the draft version of the government plan is
tantamount to China strong-arming foreign auto makers to give up battery, electric-motor, and control technology in exchange for market access… We don’t like it.
China’s automotive market is projected to grow faster than most, and with $15b of government assistance, the Chinese government has a big carrot with which to tempt foreign firms into sharing their technology. But the backlash is already building…
I understand the economic argument for the off-shoring of production, but I think the practice is reprehensible. U.S. automakers have benefitted greatly from federal largesse and should feel morally compelled to retain and create as many domestic jobs as possible.
As one of the strongest proponents of the Detroit Bailout, Rep John Dingell (D-MI) carries some weight when he makes statements like this. But how can Detroit rise again by ignoring the undeniably strong “economic argument” for outsourcing? In a Bloomberg BusinessWeek feature, Thomas Black shows why production numbers are on the rise in Mexico, and makes the case that the Detroit automakers will only increase their reliance on Mexican production when they are free from government ownership.