Ford Motor Co. last Friday quit making cars in Australia, the end of a 91-year run unnoticed in the ugly downward spiral of this fall’s presidential campaign.
The message should not be ignored. Not if those who would be the next commander-in-chief, and their supporters on both sides, bothered to understand the relentless competitive pressures weighing on jobs-creating manufacturing in the age of global markets, mobile capital and shifting automotive consumption patterns.
There’s no question anti-trade and anti-globalization sentiment is animating the candidacy of Donald Trump. It spiked the popularity of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and powered the pro-Brexit forces in the United Kingdom that surprised the European Union elite in Britain and across Europe.
But the culmination of such populist fervor does not come without an economic cost. Barring the quasi-nationalization of entire industries (a reality Detroit experienced not too long ago), business is more likely to shift investment decisions to ensure a wiser use of capital. There’s no guarantee that would benefit the home team.
Last week, too, finance ministers meeting with the head of the International Monetary Fund expressed concern that anti-trade backlash in major economies could further slow global economic growth, particularly if those sentiments elect their most sympathetic voice the next president of the United States.
A clash between global business, epitomized in Detroit by its namesake automakers, and populist politics is coming, and it’s not likely to be pretty. Trump’s repeated denunciation of Ford’s decision to move North American small-car production to Mexico is merely a taste of what likely lay ahead.
The Blue Oval is not alone. In a signal to other western economies, including the United States, Canada and the post-Brexit U.K., rivals General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. also plan to stop assembling in Australia for the same reasons Ford did: because high costs and steep transportation expenses undercut an already tenuous business case in a comparatively small market.
Is that a risk here? Not imminently. Still, higher margin expectations from investors, and the realization among a new generation of CEOs that the old status quo no longer can be acceptable, means that century-old assumptions about where to build, for whom and how much are no longer assured.
Largely by no fault of their own, frustrated voters are straddling two worlds in opposition to each other. One is the 20th-century assumption of stability; it’s the expectation that cornerstone industries will favor their home markets because they always have, and trade deals too often threaten that familiar ecosystem.
The other is a 21st-century reality of globally mobile capital seeking global markets. Many of them promise higher (if not always stable) growth prospects than the likes of the United States, Canada and western Europe are delivering.
Michigan and the industrial Midwest, one of the fiercest battlegrounds between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, know both realities all too well — the expectation forged in the last century’s affluence and the fierce competition, as well as near-collapse, parried by hometown companies competing globally.
Money is fungible, even if jobs and investment are not. To the extent automakers, to cite a familiar sector, are able to assemble engines and vehicles in their traditional core markets, they will — if a) they can achieve acceptable financial returns that b) help them satisfy political expectations to invest and build at home.
Neither is acceptable in isolation, however, at least not over the long term. The benefits associated with building Fords, GM-Holdens and Toyotas in Australia no longer justified the costs, prompting management to rethink how and where it will deploy its capital.
The same principle applies to GM’s investment in China. The Detroit-based automaker sells more cars there annually than it does in the United States, a trend unlikely to change. Its business there posted another month of record sales in September.
Capital goes where it’s invited and stays where it’s welcomed. It also flees uncertainty and the prospect of poor returns, as GM demonstrated with its decision to quit Russia. Amid continued turmoil, geopolitical tension and the need to make a billion-dollar bet on the market or leave, CEO Mary Barra chose to go.
Neither GM nor Ford are the first to do so, and they won’t be the last — not if the coming populist crack-up actually arrives.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.