Cash-short US automakers cut back on key projects

The US auto industry resembles a once-prosperous family that finds its income has not kept pace with spending plans. Suddenly, planned purchases get postponed or canceled. And family members with especially keen appetites for more money come in for a dose of criticism.

''The auto companies are in a cash crunch,'' says John Hammond, an analyst with Data Resources Inc. With car sales slumping and losses mounting, ''it is clear they do not have the cash to do all they need to do,'' he says.

The sea of red ink now flowing through the industry dwarfs the financial reverses any family will face. Chrysler Corporation announced third-quarter losses of $149 million yesterday. Earlier, Ford Motor Company posted a third-quarter decline of $335 million and General Motors Corporation dropped $ 468 million in the same three-month period.

To cope with the cash crunch, carmakers are taking steps with potential long-range consequences. Investments designed to make the industry more competitive with Japan are being delayed or dropped. Foreign sources for car parts are being sought, threatening US-based suppliers. And some auto workers are being offered the choice of giving up hard-won benefits or losing their jobs.

Detroit ''is being pressured in the short term to make cuts they know will have impact in the long run,'' Mr. Hammond says.

The biggest short-term savings come from industry moves to delay or cancel spending for new plants and production equipment designed to make US cars less expensive to build and drive.

Last week, for example, GM dropped plans to build a new $500 million assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan. Earlier, the automaking giant had delayed a plant renovation in Baltimore and put off a decision on building a new plant in Flint, Mich.

And order books for new, more efficient equipment have been hard hit. The major automakers have canceled 10 major tooling programs ''and the number is rising,'' says Al Wrigley, automotive editor of Metalworking News, a machine tool industry puiblication. Mr. Wrigley says the canceled equipment was worth in excess of $7 billion.

''What the automakers are doing is making their capital expenditure rates match their (cash inflow) rates,'' explains an analyst at Arthur D. Little Inc., Gary Marple. Still, the companies will spend huge amounts to improve their products, with GM planning to spend $40 billion by 1985 and Ford $12 billion.

But by delaying or eliminating the purchase of new, more efficient equipment, the automakers are likely postponing the day when they can match Japan in production efficiency. According to research by Merrill Lynch vice-president Harvey E. Heinbach, the Japanese can produce a subcompact for $1,000 less than Detroit - even after paying shipping costs and duties.

While more efficient equipment is not the only factor in the cost gap betweenm the two nations, it does play a role. ''They are not going to be able to complete as quickly the equipment updating needed to cut costs, notes Donald Hurter, manager of A. D. Little's automotive technology unit.

The industry is being forced to make important capital spending decisions in the midst of considerable confusion about the kind of cars Americans will want to drive in the late 1980s. Because of the industry's long lead times, production equipment for those cars must be ordered soon.

''Superimposed on the cash shortage is uncertainty in terms of product,'' notes David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation. ''My conclusion is that the market is going to drift from smaller cars into a mix with a greater fraction of larger vehicles.''

As a result of uncertainty about what car buyers want, General Motors first planned to cancel its so called B-body cars, the Chevrolet Caprice and Oldsmobile Delta 88, then changed its mind. GM officials decline to comment on product plans.

One auto industry executive, however, who asked not to be named, notes that ''the worst trap we could get into would be go head over heels for small cars and then discover the price of gas had stabilized and people didn't mind $1.50 a gallon for gas and want big cars.''

Whatever size car Detroit decides to produce, it will be scrutinizing production costs to make sure parts are made at the site with lowest costs. ''Sourcing decisions are becoming more ?important,'' notes Maryann Keller, an auto analyst at Paine Webber Mitchell Hutchins.

In a bid to hold down production costs, US automakers will likely rely more on lower-cost, offshore production. In fact, auto industry executives questioned in a study sponsored by the University of Michigan predicted that by 1985 more than 25 percent of all components in the typical US car would be produced overseas. Already, Ford purchases transmissions from Japan's Toyo Kogyo.

And US companies may end up marketing some cars made completely in Japan. The first to do this was Chrysler, which has been selling Mitsubishi-built Champs and Colts in the United States for several years. More recently, GM agreed to cooperate with Japan's Isuzu Motors Ltd. and the Suzuki Motor Company in producing and marketing a mini car smaller than the Chevrolet Chevette.

''It is crazy to think you could build a car of that size'' in the US and compete with Japanese costs, analyst Keller says.cho

Auto companies are pointing to lower-cost offshore production and mounting domestic industry losses to win concessions from labor at costly or unprofitable US plants. For instance, Ford workers at a Livonia, Mich., transmission plant voted Oct. 28 to accept work rule changes. Workers had been told the plant would be competing with Toyo Kogyo for a contract to produce a new front-wheel-drive transmission.

While automakers have been able to win concessions at plants with high costs, it will be tougher to win across-the-board concessions during contract talks in 1982. Notes Mr. Cole at the University of Michigan, ''the criticial point is convincing rank and file that the business has changed and times are different.''

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