Japan's cap on auto exports is questioned Gesture paves way for greater profits at U.S. plants, critics say.

March 20, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The first Japanese cutback in auto exports in seven years, announced yesterday, is not the good news it might seem for the Big Three U.S. carmakers.

Auto analysts say the Japanese move is as much a reflection of recession-depressed demand and increasing production at Japanese plants in the United States as it is a response to recent "Japan-bashing."

The Japanese are poised simply to shift production to their U.S. manufacturing plants as soon as the economy rebounds, keeping the level of competition intense and their U.S. profits high.

The export cutback is better news for autoworkers at the Japanese-owned plants here and could also be a boon to U.S. auto parts producers, which are becoming increasingly competitive. "The Big Three aren't worried about what is going on in terms of imports. They are worried about transplants," said Diane Swonk, economist and auto industry analyst with First Chicago.

"It's not good news for the Big Three," she said. "It's not helping them. They are still going to lose market share to the Japanese."

Mary Anne Sudol, automotive analyst with Fitch Investors Services in New York, said: "I don't know it's materially significant, but it is a gesture nonetheless. Maybe the name-calling will abate, if not stop."

In its announcement yesterday, the Japanese government said it would cut its voluntary ceiling on auto exports to the United States, imposed in 1985, from 2.3 million to 1.65 million.

But the reduction is less dramatic than the figures suggest. Imports from Japan have been falling steadily over recent years: 2.05 million in 1988; 1.94 million in 1989; 1.87 million in 1990; 1.76 million in 1991.

Japan has been under intense pressure recently from the Bush administration to open its markets to U.S. products.

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