Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge said yesterday that voluntary import limits on Japanese automobilies may be necessary, but a decision to seek such limits has not been made by President Reagan.
"The automobile industry in this country needs some running room to take care of the present situation," Baldrige siad at a reception for reporters -- his first press conference since becoming secretary. "We need some time to restore the health of this industry."
Baldrige did not predict what specific steps the Reagan administration may take to help the auto industry. A Cabinet committee headed by Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis is preparing a report for President Reagan this month. Baldrige said there is even "a real question of whether we should do anything."
Other administration officials said yesterday that the administration is considering special relief for the steel industry as part of the plan to help the auto sector.
One example of indirect aid being considered is a special investment tax credit for the steel industry if it installs a modern energy-saving process called continuous casting. Treasury officials under President Carter rejected requests by the steel industry for the special tax credit, intended to save them millions of dollars, saying the process was primarily used to aid technology, not save energy, and that it saved coal, not oil or gas.
The theory used by the Reagan administration is that if some auto-related industries can be helped, that will subsequently benefit the auto industry, the sources said. U.S. Trade Representative William E. Brock, at a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, said the Reagan administration should give "serious consideration" to granting the steel industry the special tax credit and that "steel needs attention as mush as autos."
The tax credit for continuous casting and other help for industries related to automobile production are being reviewed as part of President Reagan's interagency auto task force report scheduled to be announced this month. Other industries that could benefit from their link with the auto industries could not be confirmed yesterday.
Previous administration statements concerning what issues Reagan's auto task force is considering have focused on direct help for the automakers such as reducing regulations on automakers, modifying tax policies and gaining concessions from labor and management.
The continuous casting process converts molten steel directly into solid, semifinished shapes ready for processing into steel plate, beams, pipes and other goods, eliminating several major steps in steel production. The process would also close a tecnology gap between U.S. steel producers and those in Japan and other countries.
The process was called "the most important technological change for integrated steelmakers during the next 10 years" by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in a study last year.
Continuous casters already are eligible for a 10 percent investment tax credit. The steel industry wanted the additional energy-saving credit to save millions more dollars it says it needs to modernize.
However, tax credits are considered federal revenue losers, items often rejected by government budget cutters.
Brock also said if the Reagan administration imposes any import restraints against Japanese cars, they would probably be temporary and modest, but no decision on imports has been made.