GM-Toyota linkup poses an antitrust cliffhanger

Federal Trade Commission chairman James C. Miller III has not decided whether he feels it would be legal for Toyota Motor Corporation and General Motors Corporation to join up in producing a small car.

The FTC is expected to rule by late May or early June whether the two giant carmakers can jointly stamp out a subcompact model at an idle GM plant in Fremont, Calif., without violating US antitrust laws.

''I haven't decided what my own personal views are,'' the chairman said during a meeting with a small group of reporters. ''This is an in-between case, '' where the the agreement neither clearly conforms to nor clearly violates laws prohibiting anticompetitive behavior, he says.

Mr. Miller's views on other business regulation issues are much less tentative. For example, he opposes a major overhaul of antitrust laws to make it easier for competing businesses in troubled industries to merge so they are better able to meet competition from abroad.

''If you had a list of problems regarding competition abroad, antitrust would be down far on the list,'' Mr. Miller says. ''That is not to say there are not some (cases where exceptions) might be appropriate.''

But he adds that ''if you eliminate antitrust measures, [companies] can get together to raise prices. How does that make it possible to compete overseas?''

The genial economist does not favor an industrial policy in which the government tries to pick and promote industries that will be ''winners'' while at the same time trying to minimize the problems for ''losers.''

He calls such a strategy ''Atari mercantilism,'' and defines it as ''the simplistic notion that economic salvation lies in government intervention to promote high technology on the one hand and erect barriers to competition in basic industries on the other.''

Nevertheless, he says there may be areas in which major corporations should be allowed to conduct joint research projects. One such operation is under way in the electronics industry. Even with government blessing, such research consortia do not provide companies with immunity from privately brought antitrust suits, although they do have protection against government-brought suits.

''In some cases it may make sense to (immunize companies) from private antitrust suits as well,'' he says.

The proposed Toyota-GM linkup is ''the major matter for commission consideration this year,'' Mr. Miller says. But several other big issues will also occupy the commission's time.

FTC staff members and the American Medical Association have been holding discussions to find a mutually acceptable way to define the panel's authority to regulate anticompetitive practices of professionals, including price setting and boycotts.

Last year the commission's congressional supporters blocked AMA-backed legislation that would have exempted doctors and other professionals from agency jurisdiction. ''There may be a way to meet their legitimate concerns'' regarding agency interference in health care issues, Mr. Miller says.

Meanwhile, he hopes to reduce some of the uncertainty he says has ''substantially impaired'' efficiency at the agency's 10 regional offices. The agency chairman came to office arguing that the regional offices should be closed.

As a result, among the regional director slots, ''currently there are several positions open and several people holding acting-directors' positions,'' Mr. Miller says.

There was significant congressional opposition to his plan, and the FTC has now agreed to keep its 10 regional offices. Miller says he hopes to have permanent regional directors in place by the time these officials gather for a meeting in June.

Mr. Miller, who was executive director of the White House task force on regulatory relief, says he has changed his opinion of the agency staff. During the transition between the Carter and Reagan administrations, ''my perception was that 80 percent of the FTC personnel were ideologically motivated enough to impair their ability to perform.''

Since assuming the agency's top position, ''I found that 80 percent of the employees were very professional,'' he says. The remaining 20 percent ''do not like what is going on. And not everyone has left who felt that way.''

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