Tuesday, March 23, 2010

U.S. needs Toyota more than Toyota needs U.S.

Weep no tears for the world’s No. 1 automaker. Bad as things look for it at the moment, the worst of the crisis is over, predicts Shukan Taishu (March 22). “No way,” reads its confident headline, “America can beat Toyota!”

Unquestionably, the automaker’s once sterling reputation is tarnished as it recalls some 10 million vehicles worldwide and confronts roughly $2 billion in damage claims. Symbolic of the whole affair, which began last fall with a Lexus accelerating out of control on a California freeway until it crashed and killed four people, was the rather sorry figure cut by Toyota President Akio Toyoda in his congressional grilling in Washington last month.

On the other hand, suggests Shukan Taishu, maybe he struck the right pose after all, that of facing the music and being humbled by it. “It was then,” it quotes a Washington correspondent as remarking, “that the wind began to change in Toyota’s favor.”

You see few signs of that as yet. Amid ongoing recalls the complaints and allegations multiply—that Toyota covered up safety defects, that sales campaigns trumped engineering precision, that top management is out of touch, that the replacement of supposedly rogue floor mats is failing to solve the runaway acceleration problem. Last month’s figures show Ford, General Motors and Chrysler all with rising U.S. sales—in Ford’s case, by as much as 40%—while Toyota’s were down 9%.

On the other hand, a ringing endorsement of Toyota by a Democratic Party congresswoman must have cheered Toyoda considerably. “I’ve always been a Toyota owner,” she declared. “After I gave birth to my daughter I came home in a 1988 Camry—the very car my daughter is driving today.”

So there’s more to the Toyota brand than yesterday’s damning headlines. But Shukan Taishu’s main point is that the U.S. as a whole, and the Obama administration in particular, notwithstanding the government’s newly acquired stake in bailed-out General Motors and Chrysler, can afford to indulge in only so much Toyota bashing. “Toyota,” the magazine reminds anyone who’s forgotten, “employs 20,000 people in its U.S. factories alone. If you counts its American affiliates, it employs 200,000. In that sense, Toyota figures as an important ‘American company.’” Too big to fail, in short.

By way of example, it cites a Toyota engine assembly plant in Putnam County, West Virginia, thanks to which the local unemployment rate is only 6.1%, compared to 9.7% nationally. With seven Toyota plants across the country, plus a new one slated to open this year in Mississippi, it’s possible to argue, as an (unnamed) economist cited by Shukan Taishu does, that “Toyota is a major factor in the American economy; if its fortunes fall any further than they already have, we’re looking at a potentially serious unemployment problem. Toyota-bashing, in other words, is a double-edged sword.”

The fact is, the magazine maintains, the U.S. needs Toyota more than Toyota needs the U.S. Where did president Toyoda jet straight from Washington? To Beijing, where he declared China be a Toyota priority. Naturally. It, not the U.S., is now the world’s No. 1 auto market.

“That,” comments the economist, “gave the Americans pause.”

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