American business, which has long complained about being the target of systematic Japanese industrial strategies, has begun to step up its own targeting with a strong forward push from the Reagan administration and congressional leaders.
The cream of the American computer industry is considering a long leap in that direction--the formation of a joint venture to develop a four-million bit, random access computer memory, capable of storing that many characters of computer code on a single chip. "It would be a major step foward that would leapfrog the next couple of generations of memory product, if we would do it," said Erich Bloch, a vice president of International Business Machines Corp. and chairman of the Semiconductor Research Corp., the industry group that is considering the venture.
"I don't know anything they the Japanese are doing that far out," he said. The most powerful memory chip in widespread use holds slightly more than 64,000 bits of information.
The SRC's 19 members are a Who's Who of the American computer and electronics industry: IBM and Control Data Corp., General Electric Co. and Westinghouse Corp., Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Not very long ago, even the whisper of a joint venture among this group would have sounded such an antitrust alarm that the companies' legal counsels would have fainted.
Now, however, they are getting the full endorsement and active support of the Commerce Department. D. Bruce Merrifield, assistant secretary of Commerce for productivity, technology and innovation, is urging the SRC to form a special kind of joint effort called a research and development limited partnership (RDLP).
"The antitrust laws don't allow them to collaborate, so what we have to do is set up a separate legal entity," Merrifield says. A general partner, heading the venture, would arrange take-or-pay contracts with the computer and electronics companies in which they would commit to buy the chips provided quality and price specifications were met. "They don't have to pay a nickel and they get a four megabit chip for nothing," Merrifield said.
The lead partner would hire the other companies' laboratories or labs in government or universities to do the research and development, including work on production and feasibility issues.
The money would come from private investors--limited partners--who could make highly-leveraged investments in the project, using it as a tax shelter initially. If the chip were successfully developed, the technology would be licensed to the companies or other manufacturers, earning royalties for the partners, which, Merrifield says, should be treated as long-term capital gains, lowering the tax bite further.
Merrifield says he hopes that $100 million to $200 million could be raised for the venture. "The business plan is being put together now and hopefully we'll have it funded by the end of this year," said Merrifield, speaking at a conference on high-tech development at the Brookings Institution yesterday.
Bloch, a speaker at a White House conference on productivity yesterday, was more guarded in predicting a green light for the venture. "It's a highly complex, very ambitious undertaking. How we come out, I wouldn't want to predict."
But whatever the decision on that proposal, the movement to joint ventures is rapidly picking up speed, with companies in the aircraft, steel and pharmaceuticals industries taking close looks at the concept, Merrifield says.
Both Congress and the administration appear disposed to help that movement along by easing antitrust laws so that the ventures could not be successfully sued unless their activities were proven to be more anticompetitive than not--a far more forgiving legal standard than now applies.
Speaking to a group of editors and broadcasters yesterday, President Reagan noted the administration's recent proposals to protect R&D joint ventures against antitrust lawsuits, saying that "industry in America, for its own progress and for our country's progress," should be allowed to do cooperative research "without being in violation of the antitrust laws."
Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), told the Brookings meeting yesterday that current antitrust doctrine was "fine for its day and age, but it has no application, much of it, to the international competitive world we are in.
"One thing that will come to pass this year is a change in antitrust laws regarding joint ventures," he said, making the rules "as loose as possible so that companies are not constrained by the Justice Department in getting together."
Whether the Japanese industrial juggernaut is so all-powerful as to threaten the American position in dozens of industrial technologies simultaneously may still be open to debate. But Japan's past successes have kindled a powerful public fear that is triggering congressional action, Tsongas says.