JIN-497 -- Bittersweet days as Toyota gets set to take pole position

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J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' J@pan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 497 Wednesday January 21, 2009, Tokyo

In 1931, two years after the Wall Street crash that led to the Great
Depression, Ford Motor Co., the greatest symbol of the American
industrial revolution was overtaken by General Motors. GM would go on
to weather World War II and to flourish during the suburban dreams of
the 50s and 60s. In 1957 Toyota entered the American market, but
despite its strength in the 1980s and continued growth in the 90s and
2000s, GM managed to retain the mantle as world No. 1.

But now it seems that finally, Toyota is to overtake GM. With global
sales plummeting, it looks like the Toyota tally of vehicles sold for
2008 will be 8.34 million. Sales figures due about 9am New York time,
should place GM 628,000 vehicles behind Toyota. It could be deemed
symbolic due to parallels drawn between the Depression and the period
that we are entering into now. But that would be a poor comparison.
The automotive industry, while still an important part of some of the
world's biggest economies, is a different beast to the one that
existed in 1931. Now, things can only get tougher for the The Big
Three(s) of the U.S. and Japan... and for the most of the other
automakers of Asia, and those in Europe. Raw materials will continue
to become scarcer while research and development budgets, needed for
the next phase of eco-friendly production, will be cut over the next
year.

For Toyota, it will be a hollow victory. For years now the Japanese
manufacturing giant has been inching closer to the pole position. The
nation's major newspapers continued running non-stories throughout
2007 and 2008 about how Toyota was "about to overtake GM" as world
No.1. Now it looks like Toyota has done it. But it's no time for
celebration. It is estimated Toyota will report a net loss of 195
billion yen ($2.1 billion) for the last three months of 2008. For the
same period a year prior, the company made a profit of 458.7 billion
yen. The operating loss for the last quarter of 2008 may yet total
322.1 billion yen according to a report by Bloomberg. Now jobs are
being slashed around the world. Temporary workers in Nagoya have been
kicked out of company homes while Toyota's American plants are
shutting down periodically due to reduced production. A statement from
Toyota on January 16 said the overall inventory in the US would be cut
by about half in the second quarter of 2009.

Meanwhile, a weaker won may lead to competitor Hyundai reporting its
biggest profit gain in six quarters. For the same three months it's
estimated that the Korean automaker's net income jumped to 510.3
billion won or about 33 billion yen from 338 billion won for the same
quarter a year earlier. This doesn't mean Hyundai won't escape the
auto industry meltdown, though - the company plans to cut domestic
production by possibly 30 percent this quarter. Affiliate Kia may also
cut production by about 24 percent.

The continued strength of the yen means that Toyota's battle will not
be easy this year. The title of the world's biggest automaker is going
to mean little in the massively shrunken auto markets of Northern
America. For every 1 yen gain against the dollar, Toyota's annual
operating profit is cut by 40 billion yen. What was going to be
Toyota's finest hour has become something altogether different. When
the world's auto markets return to some kind of normalcy, Toyota may
well still be No. 1 - but there is a long way to go before then.

Michael Condon
Editor-in-chief

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