An Angry Japan Responds To Trump's Toyota Taunts
After Trump’s Thursday morning twitter taunt targeted Toyota, when the President-elect warned Japan’s biggest carmaker that it will face heavy penalties if it chooses to make cars for the US market in Mexico, writing “Toyota Motor said will build a new plant in Baja, Mexico, to build Corolla cars for U.S. NO WAY! Build plant in U.S. or pay big border tax“, a tweet which sent shares of Japanese carmakers sliding on Friday with a 1.7% fall for Toyota, 2.2% for Nissan and 3.2% for Mazda, an angry Japanese government and corporate establishment pushed back against Trump’s criticism of Toyota as the attack on the country’s most powerful corporate name sent shockwaves across “Japan Inc.”
As the FT notes, CEOs of Japanese companies including Sony’s Kazuo Hirai and Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn weighed in, while analysts feared the president-elect’s targeting of Toyota would lead to a broader fallout on Japan-US trade relations, similar to concerns about an escalating trade war between the US and China.
“Toyota is responsible for large employment at US plants such as in Kentucky. It’s questionable whether the new US president has a grasp of how many vehicles Toyota builds in the US,” said Taro Aso, Japan’s finance minister. Hiroshige Seko, minister for trade and industry, added that the Japanese government would do its part to explain to the US administration about the contribution of the country’s car industry to the US economy.
“Toyota is equivalent to Japan as a whole, so Mr Trump’s criticism could be interpreted as a message to the Japanese government,” said Koji Endo, motor industry analyst at SBI Securities, expressing concerns about the impact on bilateral trade negotiations once Mr Trump is officially appointed later this month.
Analysts said Trump’s focus on Toyota, after Ford this week announced that it would pull plans for a $1.6bn Mexican plant, is not surprising but ironic for the Japanese carmaker who was the latecomer among global rivals in shifting production to Mexico. They noted that Toyota, which has an existing manufacturing facility in Baja to build the Tacoma pick-up truck, only made about 6% of 2.2m vehicles sold in the US in Mexico during the January to November period, compared with 33% for Nissan and 47 per cent for Mazda, according to SBI Securities, both of which companies are said to be far more exposed to Trump’s future ire than Toyota.
As the FT adds, in 2015, Toyota announced plans to spend $1 billion building a new facility in the central state of Guanajuato that will make Corolla vehicles from 2019.
The decision was a symbolic one for Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s chief executive, as it marked the lifting of a three-year moratorium on plant construction. It also underscored the company’s recovery since Mr Toyoda faced a US congressional grilling in 2010 in the wake a massive recall of spontaneously accelerating Toyota vehicles.
Having experienced the US recall crisis and the subsequent political backlash, analysts say Toyota may eventually adjust its strategy in Mexico, either by reducing the planned number of vehicle production or increasing the capacity of existing US plants in Texas or Mississippi.
“The company will carefully try to avoid taking action that would leave a negative impression on the new US administration,” said Masahiro Akita, analyst at Credit Suisse. “Considering how Toyota has operated in the past, it wouldn’t be surprising if the company makes a policy shift.”
In response to Trump’s tweet, Toyota has said no US jobs would be lost as a result of its planned new plant in Mexico. CEO Toyoda also said the company would “see what policies the incoming president adopts” before deciding whether to take action.
Still, Mr Akita said a complete reversal of Toyota’s plan to construct a new plant in Guanajuato was unlikely considering Mr Toyoda’s concerns about the impact on employment and the regional economy.
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Then again, the Trump twitter effect may soon fizzle according to Reuters Breakingviews, which noted that Toyota’s day in Donald Trump’s crosshairs “could mark peak Twitter-Trump.”
On Thursday, the U.S. president-elect threatened tariffs on the Japanese carmaker, if it sold Mexico-made Corollas in the United States. Yet a 2 percent fall in Toyota’s Tokyo-listed shares looks muted considering Ford and General Motors performed as poorly or worse on New York trading. That’s because it quickly became clear Trump had all his facts wrong. The more that happens, the less impact his tweet storms will have.
Trump’s bully pulpit, both online and at rallies, can certainly be effective. General Motors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing have all scrambled to respond. This week Ford ditched a plan to build a new plant in Mexico that Trump had slated.
In Toyota’s case, a 35 percent import tax on 200,000 Corollas built annually at its new plant in Mexico would add $1.4 billion to their overall cost, assuming a $20,000 sticker price per car. That’s around 10 percent of this year’s expected earnings, which either Toyota or customers would have to swallow.
That’s never going to happen, though, for one very simple reason: Toyota’s new plant would replace one in Canada, not America. All Corolla production for U.S. sales remains in the company’s Mississippi factory. The plant is also in Guanajuato, not Baja, as Trump asserted.
Getting such basic facts wrong might not bother Trump’s supporters. But shareholders are more likely to get wise to such antics and start focusing on more concrete issues.
Contrast Toyota with Constellation Brands, the $30 billion alcoholic drinks firm. Its shares dropped more than 7 percent on Thursday, despite strong earnings. The maker of Corona and other Mexican brews faces higher costs if tax breaks are scrapped for overseas costs. That’s a central tenet of tax reforms sought by congressional Republicans and Trump. And these would be easier to put in place than long-term cross-border tariffs, which break trade agreements.
None of this means Trump’s ability to micromanage via social-media bullying is over. But the more his punches fall wide of the mark, the more inclined investors will be to ignore him.
While that may eventually pan out, for now the market (and various Trump tweet scanning apps) is far more transfixed by what Trump tweets in his daily social media sermons than even statements made by many if not all Fed members.