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Prices of Japanese imports are on the rise. Autos and VCRs will cost more in US, but whether sales will sag is iffy

As the American dollar slips and Japan's yen inherits the dollar's strength, Christmas shoppers wandering through the aisles may soon be startled by an unusual phenomenon -- prices of Japanese products actually going up. While the rise may come in small increments, it is definitely on the way and in some instances already in place for such items as videocassette recorders (VCRs), color TVs, stereos and, yes, cars.

One by one Japanese exporters, particularly those in the automobile or consumer electronics business, are falling into line with modest price increases. Industry leaders like Sony, Honda, Nissan, and computer-chip maker NEC Corporation all announced increases this week ranging from 4 to 20 percent.

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Although hesitant to boost prices for fear of losing market share to competitors in the United States, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and even Yugoslavia, the Japanese have been spurred on by the increasing value of the yen relative to the dollar. The rising yen has cut into corporate profits and the Japanese have acted to support sagging margins.

All of this is not good news for Americans grown used to ever cheaper yet high-quality Japanese goods. It does, however, give breathing space to a number of US companies, several of which have taken this opportunity to boost prices on the heels of Japanese competitors so as to widen perilously slim profit margins.

More significantly, the rise of the yen may have thrown cold water on protectionist trade measures pending in Congress.

Looked at closely, the Japanese government's moves to boost interest rates at home to support the yen, along with corporate moves to raise prices, may be more a strategic withdrawal than an about-face, US analysts say.

While not terribly happy about the strong yen and the dip in profits, Japan's corporate managers are most concerned about the possibility of losing their US marketplace, these analysts say.

As the Japanese see it, a temporary drop in profits is the cost they must pay to defuse protectionist sentiment in Congress and still maintain a strong position in US markets, says Kathleen Molony, senior Japan analyst at Data Resources Inc., a Lexington, Mass., economic consulting firm.

``There is a clear threat from protectionism and they know that market share may be lost in some areas,'' Ms. Molony says. ``But it's a minimal sacrifice so far.

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``Japanese producers have been watching the exchange rate very closely for a long time and it might not have hurt them as much as we may think. They've made many of their plans based on the 190- to 200-yen-per-dollar level.'' The yen was valued at around 204 to one US dollar this week, compared with more than 240 in September.

Put in perspective, the yen's strength is mainly an outcome of the Sept. 22 decision by the US, Britain, France, West Germany, and Japan to drive down the dollar to make it cheaper for foreigners to buy US goods. But that effort to help the US balance of trade also makes imports more expensive for American citizens.

If the Reagan administration's aim in having the meeting was to short-circuit protectionism as well as help the US balance of trade, it appears to have succeeded so far. Since the meeting, the Japanese have been busy boosting short-term interest rates at home to support the yen. Japanese prices have gone up. US products are more competitive. Yet, US consumers appear unlikely to turn away from Japanese products because of this first wave of increases.

Take Japanese automobiles, for example. Honda and Nissan announced price increases this week averaging 4 percent across their spectrum of car models imported to this country. But that single move alone won't hurt sales or profits, says Jimmy Wang, vice-president for international trading at Prudential-Bache Securities.

``If you give them [Japanese automakers] time, they will decrease their production costs even further,'' Mr. Wang says. ``They can still make money, because they're so highly automated and their products already are so much cheaper to produce than anyone else's. But, yes, the yen's rise will hurt profit margins.''

Similar views are voiced by other analysts, who say the yen must settle around the 200 mark for several years for protectionist feelings in Congress to fade.

``One fear the people who live by exporting have is being cut off from the US market,'' says Burt Stoddard, news editor at Ward's Auto World magazine. ``This has got to be a permanent thing, because there is so much sentiment in Congress that they have decided the way to do it is take less profit and build plants in this country.''

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