Back to trade.
Soon after I joined Automotive News in 1995, the Clinton administration threatened to slap tariffs on imports of Japanese luxury vehicles. They were demanding numerical results from Japan in the form of a reduced trade deficit, and Japanese government officials were furious. For once, Washington wasn't going to be placated by procedural changes that produced no change in the red ink.
Import dealers howled, but that approach was the smartest I had seen from Washington in years. The average American would not be collateral damage in this trade war, only a relatively small number of car dealers.
Japanese officials dug in their heels, and then Toyota did an end run around them, releasing figures showing how much Toyota expected its purchases of American-made parts to soar as it expanded North American production.
Mind you, they didn't raise their planned purchases, just showed their existing plans. But that — and a favorable dollar-yen rate that temporarily boosted sales of U.S.-made cars in Japan — satisfied the American negotiators.
In my opinion, President Bill Clinton blinked. But once that dispute was over, I figured I'd never cover another U.S.-Japan automotive trade dispute. There were too many Japanese factories in America for it ever to be "us vs. them" again.
And while the politicians might rant, the average citizens in the U.S. and Japanese auto industry were building personal ties that erased the sometimes racially tinged trade rhetoric. One of my favorite Automotive News stories was the tale of a Honda stamping-press expert who never expected to leave Japan when he joined the company. Then he was sent to Marysville, Ohio, and got to be close friends with his American deer-hunting buddies there. When his family returned to Japan, his wife took a job cleaning toilets at the local university so she could meet international students and offer them the same friendship that she had received from Ohioans.
The end of trade disputes was fine by me. I had had enough over the years. On my first day at BusinessWeek's Tokyo office in 1985, the entire bureau went out to lunch to strategize how to defuse the worst of a proposed Japan-bashing cover story written by our New York editors titled "Collision Course."
My initiation into trade came even earlier. In 1977, two years out of college and writing about Japanese hardware products for a Hong Kong magazine, I spoke with the head of the Japanese industrial-fastener association about U.S. claims that his companies were dumping screws, nuts and bolts into the American market. "We're not dumping!" he insisted. "Of course, we may need to sell below cost for a few months until the exchange rate goes back to where it should be."
Uh, hello. That was my first lesson in the learning curve that countries go through in international trade. They export like crazy to build their industry until they become big enough to become a problem for the importing country, and only then do they learn the rules of international trade. Korea followed Japan down that path.
China was a bit different. It was allowed into the World Trade Organization despite being in violation of several WTO rules, including limits on automakers' and parts suppliers' ownership of their Chinese operations.
China knew exactly what it was doing. America, in my opinion, was naive in assuming that China would voluntarily conform to all WTO rules once it became part of the global trading system.
Now, the Trump administration has launched a trade war over China's trade practices. Unlike with the Clinton administration, I see no attempt to limit the collateral damage, to make sure we hurt them more than we hurt ourselves or our allies.
How that plays out will be covered in Automotive News, but not by me. I'm outta here, grateful for the ride and for the chance to cover this great industry. My wish for readers is that they continue to enjoy what this industry offers: the opportunity to earn their success.