Competitiveness. It's the buzzword of the year, the reason the dollar has plunged, the aim of dozens of trade bills in Congress. But what does American business think it needs to become more competitive? Monitor economics correspondent Ron Scherer asked five key corporate leaders - in industries ranging from steel and textiles to finance and agriculture - to look at the issue. Here's what they think.

Walter F. Williams Chairman and chief executive officer of Bethlehem Steel THE trade deficit contributes to the nation's indebtedness, drains capital from our country, and ships millions of desirable jobs overseas. In short, it undermines America's entire manufacturing sector. I would welcome a trade bill that addresses the issue of competitiveness and legislates steps to reduce thetrade deficit.

In looking at competitiveness, two areas are crucial:

Unfair trade: The world is awash in goods of all sorts - agricultural commodities, basic raw materials, metals, autos, semiconductors. As a result, historical patterns of international trade have changed significantly - and permanently - in the 1980s. Unfortunately, our trade laws and their enforcement provisions have not been modified to reflect this. Producers from other countries can penetrate our markets without being penalized until they have been found guilty after a prolonged legal proceeding. Even then, there is no penalty for past damage, only potential penalties for prospective actions. Our laws should be changed to permit quick, corrective response to violations. We must make violators of fair trade think twice before they ignore the rules of participating in the US markets.

Open markets: The US has to be more forceful in requiring major trading partners to open their markets to our goods and services. For years, the US government has wrung its hands while our trade deficit with Japan has escalated. Yet the Heritage Foundation reports that US companies have not been awarded a major Japanese construction project since 1965. Something is very wrong here! We must take decisive steps to restore more-balanced trade with our major trading partners.

Three other areas could enhance competitiveness:

First, tax policy. American business is at a competitive disadvantage because the United States relies on income taxes, which fall mostly on domestic producers, while our trading partners use indirect taxes, which fall on the goods being consumed, no matter what the country of origin. A tax system more in line with those of our principal trading partners should be considered.

Second, exchange rates. Many countries, especially Canada, South Korea, and Taiwan, have aligned their currencies with the US dollar in a way that favors their trade with us. This issue, too, needs prompt action.

Finally, the nation must face up to the necessity of supporting the restructuring of many of our basic industries without forcing them to resort to bankruptcy. This must be done in a way that allows the remaining facilities to be internationally competitive.

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