Auto industry needs to learn Hawaii's lesson

DETROIT -- When I hear auto industry folks complaining about sales volumes still being weak, I think of Hawaii.

That's ironic, because when I first heard Hawaiians' complaints about a weak tourist market, I thought of the auto industry.

In the late 1990s, my family and I vacationed in Hawaii one Christmas season. We had a great time but heard repeatedly from B&B owners and others that the 50th state was suffering from a weak tourist market.

U.S. tourists were still coming. The problem, it seemed, was a drop in tourists from Japan, which was still slogging through what was known as Japan's “Lost Decade,” a period of economic stagnation.

I thought of Ford. For much of its history, when Ford's North American operations were struggling, profits would be propped up by Ford of Europe, which typically was on a different economic cycle. Conversely, when Ford of Europe was down, Ford-North America would pick up the slack.

Sometimes, both regions would be down, and Ford was in the pits. But that wasn't common.

If Hawaii's tourist industry worked the same way, I thought, it should do fine if tourists from either the United States or Japan were coming to its beaches and resorts. If it needed both of its major tourist-origination markets to be going great guns to be profitable, I decided, it had simply overbuilt its tourist facilities.

Maybe I was being judgmental, but it seemed like good business sense to me. As the saying goes, you can't build the church for Easter Sunday.

Today, the U.S. auto industry is chugging along at an annual sales rate of 11 million to 12 million units. Automakers, suppliers and many dealers are making good profits.

But lots of folks are still pining for the days of 15 million or 16 million. They act like anything less isn't enough.

I think they're suffering from the Hawaii syndrome.