The Currency Wars: Now US Automakers Are Squealing

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party went all out late last year to re-grab the power it had held for 50 years before getting booted out in 2009. Its platform: print and borrow with utter abandon to create asset bubbles and inflation, and to weaken the yen. It even threatened to wrest control over the printing press away from the Bank of Japan. That verbiage has been phenomenally successful: the stock market is surging, and the yen is crashing from historic—under normal circumstances, inexplicable—highs.

But now, US automakers are squealing. They want the government to fight back in the currency war. The American Automotive Policy Council (AAPC), a lobbying organization that represents only Ford, GM, and Chrysler, sent President Obama a letter, demanding retaliation against Japan’s NO EXIT strategy. Then it went public with its grievances.

“Here we go again,” said Matt Blunt, AAPC president and former Republican governor of Missouri. “Japan’s Liberal Democratic party is back in power and determined to repeat the ‘beggar thy neighbor’ policies that distort trade by cheapening the value of the yen to promote economic growth in Japan at the expense of its trading partners.”

He claimed that “these types of policies” had “inflicted tremendous harm” on manufacturing in the US. “We urge the Obama Administration to make it clear to Japan that such policies are unacceptable and will be met by reciprocal measures.”

The AAPC has been lambasting Japan, and rightfully so, for having “the most closed auto market in the developed world,” protected by “non-tariff barriers” that keep US automotive products out. But now it accused Japan of manipulating its currency “to boost its own exports at the expense of other nations, especially the United States.”

Alas, the biggest currency manipulator in the world is the Fed, not only with its verbiage but also with its endless and escalating waves of quantitative easing, to the point where it currently prints $85 billion a month to debase and demolish the dollar, or what is left of it, which isn’t much. It makes US wages more competitive with those in Mexico and China. It also makes imports more expensive for American consumers and exports cheaper for consumers elsewhere. Meanwhile, Japan’s infamous trade surplus has given way to a ballooning trade deficit.

The automakers were whining to President Obama, ironically, as another announcement was made and received with hoopla: GM would invest $1.5 billion in plants in North America in 2013. While no further details emerged, hopes were swirling that this manna would rain down on Michigan.

Yet North America, in addition to Michigan, also includes among other places Canada and Mexico, and how much of this money will land in the US is uncertain. Embarrassingly, the $1.5 billion was just a fraction of GM’s planned investments of $8 billion for 2013, of which $6.5 billion will be sent to countries outside North America—not Europe where GM is bleeding to death, but Asia.

That has been the paradigm in manufacturing for decades. US corporations have invested prodigiously in China and other countries where labor is cheap and have thus contributed to their enormous economic growth, while only crumbs have fallen on US soil. In this manner, much of the US auto component industry has moved offshore.

Exhibit A: Delphi, formerly GM’s component division. GM spun it off in 1999. Two years later, Delphi axed 11,500 workers. In 2004, it got into hot water over its accounting practices. In 2005, it went bankrupt and closed 45 plants in the US, with much of the production moving to China. In 2009, it sold its chassis division to state-owned BeijingWest Industries, which now develops and manufactures brake and chassis components for US and European automakers.

Exhibit B: Visteon, formerly Ford’s component division. Always the laggard, Ford spun it off in 2000. In 2009, it went bankrupt, shuttered all but one of its 33 plants in the US, let go 25,000 workers, and shifted its center of gravity to Shanghai. It now has 171 plants and facilities in other countries. Its headquarters building in Van Buren Township, Michigan, was sold last year, though its headquarters is still officially located there.

Visteon is still “a US company at this point,” CEO Tim Leuliette said at the Automotive News World Congress on Wednesday. Yet globally, he added, only “about 4%, 5% of our employees are in the United States,” most of them supporting customers in North America. So, if the headquarters shifted to Asia, he said, it wouldn’t change much, jobs-wise.

Bitter irony: American automakers, after having sent their investments and manufacturing overseas, are using a Republican ex-governor to pressure the Obama administration to stop the Japanese from defending themselves in the currency war that the Fed has been waging relentlessly for years.

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