Wednesday, 4 November 2009

On “Industrial Policy”

What type of stories would I cover if I were a financial journalist?

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times had an interview with William Clay Ford Jr., “perhaps the most seasoned auto executive in Detroit.” He has more than 30 years on the job at Ford Motor Company which was founded by his great grandfather. He is presently the executive chairman of the board. A Q&A and the follow-up went as follows:
Q: Is the financial support given by taxpayers to G.M. and Chrysler a positive development for the American economy?

A: The biggest concern that we had all through this was the collapse of the supply base. I believe that if G.M. and Chrysler had gone into free-fall bankruptcies, it could have devastated the entire industrial base of this country.

Q: Does the average American value the domestic auto industry?

A: They should. One cannot find a healthy economy anywhere in the world that does not have a strong industrial base, period. We seem to be the only country in the world that doesn't strongly value that. Everywhere else Ford does business in the world the government and people understand it, and do everything they can to enhance it. The notion that we can just simply become an information-age data provider as a nation is ludicrous.
The interview was published in a special section about cars and not in the business section.

If I were conducting the interview, I would note that Ford Jr. was lamenting the lack of an industrial policy, although he did not dare/care/want to mention that phrase. I would also note that he was lamenting the lack of an industrial policy the way one would lament the lack of, say, good beaches in the country.

I would gently push him on the subject, encouraging him to continue with his thoughts.

“Mr. Ford”, I would ask, “as a high ranking executive of Ford Motor Company and a powerful business executive, your views carry tremendous weight on the subject of manufacturing. You have the ear of every Fortune 500 executive and every policymaker in this country, including the president of the U.S. Since you maintain that without an industrial policy a nation is doomed, “period”, why is it that you have not pushed for the creation and adoption of just such a policy? More importantly, given the critical role of such policy, one would expect it to be the playbook of the business and the government activities. But it is not. Who and what stand in the way? Please take your time.”

I would then go to Larry Summers, the wunderkind working from the While House, and ask him the flip side of the question.

“Dr. Summers”, I’d ask. “The Wall Street Journal of February 13, 1998 carried an incredible news story on page A2 pertaining to your testimony in front of a congressional committee in the context of the Asian financial crisis that was then raging. Here is what you said:
There has been more progress in scaling back the industrial policy programs in these countries in the last several months than there has been in a decade or more of negotiations.
“In your testimony, you expressed satisfaction at the scaling back, or even the destruction of, the industrial policies in Asian countries. Is it now or has it ever been the policy of the U.S. to dismantle the industrial policies anywhere it finds them, including within the U.S.? If so, how and where is this policy set? If there is no coordinated opposition, why do you think that there has not been any such policy despite the conviction of manufacturing executives that it is absolutely needed?”

These are the questions I would ask if I were a financial journalist.