The three U.S.-owned automakers joined forces and took their competition with the Japanese into new territory last week, filing an "anti-dumping" complaint against minivans imported by Toyota Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. The complaint _ the first formal charge of unfair pricing brought against Japanese automakers _ accuses Toyota and Mazda of pricing their Previa and MPV minivans as much as 30 percent and 27 percent, respectively, below "fair value."
A Toyota official labeled the charge "absurd," and experts say such cases are difficult to prove. But analysts said the mere filing of the complaint might pressure the Japanese to raise their U.S. prices or otherwise ease up the marketplace pressure.
Dumping is the sale of imported products either for less than it cost to produce them or less than the price charged for the same product in the home market. To be considered dumping, such pricing must cause injury to a domestic competitor.
The joint action Friday appeared to signal a growing unity on public policy issues among General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., all of which are suffering massive losses in their North American car and truck operations. In the past, GM had staked out a strong free-trade position.
"I think it's very significant that all three companies are jointly behind this," said Clyde Prestowitz, a former top trade negotiator for the Department of Trade and president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. "It's the first time they've been able to get together on a trade issue. That tells me they've got a good case."
In recent weeks, the three companies have announced joint research ventures into electric vehicles and other projects.
With their share of a recessionary auto market steadily eroded by Japanese competition, the domestic companies this year have appealed directly to President Bush, his trade envoys and Congress for relief from import and regulatory pressure. Those efforts have met with little success.
But the anti-dumping complaint was seen as an avenue more acceptable to the White House and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, who recently warned the Japanese against aggressive price-cutting.
"There have been pretty clear signals from Washington that they don't want trade restrictions," said David Cole, head of the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "But where dumping is involved, it might be another matter."
Many economists point out that anti-dumping petitions are harmful to U.S. consumers, who stand to benefit from low prices. On the other hand, if dumping foreign products undermines U.S. manufacturers, Americans will lose jobs, and the nation will be weakened economically.
About 50 dumping cases annually have been filed in recent years, most involving obscure products such as ball-bearings.
Within 45 days, the six-member International Trade Commission will make a tentative finding of whether U.S. minivan producers are being injured. The Commerce Department then would decide whether the Japanese are dumping. If the charges stand up, duties ultimately would be slapped on the products to rectify the situation.
The Japanese have just 12 percent of the U.S. market for minivans, which was pioneered and is dominated by Chrysler.
Ironically, Ford plans to introduce a new minivan next year that it is building in this country in a joint venture with Nissan. Nissan's previous minivan, the Axxess, was a sales disaster. Ford also owns 25 percent of Mazda.
The Toyota Previa and Mazda MPV are considered the first serious Japanese competition in minivans, and the U.S. companies portrayed Toyota and Mazda as dumping their vans to steal market share.
The petition charges that Toyota is underpricing its minivans by 5.4 percent to 30.5 percent and Mazda by 14.8 percent to 27 percent.
Some $6-billion in Big Three minivan investments "and the thousands of jobs which they support are being threatened by the decision of Japanese minivan producers to aggressively seek a major share of the U.S. minivan market through unfair pricing practices," said Thomas H. Hanna, president of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.
Mazda was restrained in its comments Friday, saying it does not believe it is dumping the MPV.
But Toyota officials, noting U.S. dominance of the minivan business and the fact that leader Chrysler has increased its market share lately, called the dumping charge ridiculous.