Economy Strains Under Weight of Unsold Items

Richie Franklin of the United Auto Workers Local 2999 in Strasburg, Va. The local's plant lost 200 workers as demand for auto parts sags.
Richie Franklin of the United Auto Workers Local 2999 in Strasburg, Va. The local's plant lost 200 workers as demand for auto parts sags. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The unsold cars and trucks piling up at dealerships and assembly lines as consumers cut back and auto companies scramble for federal aid are just one sign of a major problem hurting the economy and only likely to get worse.

The world is suddenly awash in almost everything: flat-panel televisions, bulldozers, Barbie dolls, strip malls, Burberry stores. Japan yesterday said its economy shrank at an 12.7 percent annual pace in the last three months of 2008 as global demand evaporated for Japanese cars and electronics. Business everywhere are scrambling to bring supply in line with demand.

Downsizing can be tricky, though. No one knows how much worse the economy will get, and while everyone waits for the recession to peter out, businesses are grappling with how to cut costs and survive without sabotaging their ability to grow when the economy picks up.

And there is a lot to cut.

"There is over-capacity in everything," from "retail to manufacturing to housing," said Richard Yamarone, chief economist at Argus Research. "If capacity is too large, you don't need that many people employed, which is another reason we're seeing such high job losses."

As long as capacity far outstrips demand, businesses have little reason to expand, buy new equipment or hire workers. Even if the government funds bridge repairs and banks step up lending, many industries still have to go through massive restructuring before growth can resume. But executives say they have to tread carefully. If they put off critical investments in technology or research for too long, they could hobble their recovery and even the economy's.

Few industries have been as stung as severely by excess capacity as the U.S. auto industry, which produces millions more vehicles than it can sell. In 2008, there were enough automotive assembly plants in North America to churn out 18.3 million vehicles a year, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Analysts estimate that consumers this year will buy about 11 million. At current sales levels, it would take 116 days to sell all the cars and trucks clogging lots.

Automakers are scheduled to submit plans today outlining how they hope to restructure their operations to deal with a smaller marketplace, while still developing the new fuel-efficient cars that may be key to their future.

Auto suppliers are also trying to figure out how to survive in the face of massive excess capacity globally.

At its plant in Strasburg, Va., International Automotive Components, a Michigan-based supplier, secured wage and benefit concessions from workers in 2007 in hopes of staying competitive. But when Ford closed a factory in Norfolk, IAC had to lay off more than 200 workers, a third of the workforce in Strasburg. Since then, IAC has been able to line up more work for the plant.

"The unfortunate thing is we know . . . it comes at the cost of other workers whose plants were unable to survive," said Karen Foster, president of United Auto Workers Local 2999, which represents the IAC employees at the affected plant.

There are echoes of the automakers' plight throughout the economy. Sandra Berg, chief executive of Ellis Paint in Los Angeles, an industrial paint and coating manufacturer, recently found herself confronting over-capacity head on. Her company had been growing steadily since 2000 and was able to hand out bonuses for 2008. The downturn started to affect business toward the end of last year. Then came January, and "we just slammed into a brick wall," Berg said.

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