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Little Effect Seen From Japan's Move : Trade: Auto parts and construction firms may benefit from the market-opening measures, analysts say.

March 29, 1994|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Automotive suppliers may sell more parts and heavy-construction firms may get a better crack at major projects, but in general the new package of market-opening measures unveiled in Tokyo early today will have negligible impact on California firms and other U.S. companies seeking inroads into Japan, industry representatives and analysts said.

Among the key elements of the still-ambiguous program is a government pledge to "facilitate" the local purchase of parts by Japanese auto plants overseas and the expansion of imports of foreign autos and parts into Japan.

In the government procurement sector, the plan calls for establishment procedures to disseminate information on large-scale telecommunication projects and medical equipment purchases at least 90 days before public calls for bids. Collusion and bid-rigging by Japanese firms privy to project specifications before public announcements have been among the main complaints of foreign construction firms seeking business there.

But the government did not say what information would be made available early or whether it would liberalize the Byzantine system of qualifications for non-Japanese bidders. It also said it would wait until June before deciding whether, or by how much, to expand its public works budget.

"Everything depends on what information they release 90 days before," said James McNulty, senior vice president of Ralph M. Parsons Co., a Pasadena-based heavy-construction firm active in the Japanese market through a series of joint ventures with Japanese building firms.

"It's one thing to know there's a project out there, but what about information about bidding criteria?"

Before the government's announcement, Japanese auto makers separately on Monday said they would set higher goals for purchases of U.S.-made parts. Toyota Motor Corp., for example, said it plans to increase total purchases of U.S.-made parts to $6.45 billion in fiscal 1996 from $4.43 billion in fiscal 1992. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. similarly said it would purchase about $2 billion worth of U.S. parts in fiscal 1996.

All of these figures, however, are plans, not promises, and are dependent on stronger sales and improved competitiveness by U.S. suppliers.

"Overall, this would have a modest impact on this industry," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Group Inc., a Santa Ana-based automotive marketing and consulting firm. The plan, he said, is "more than a token response" to American government pressure to open up the Japanese market but "not an open-arms response considering the fact that U.S. parts are cheaper than Japanese parts."

In general, Japan's proposals were greeted coolly by industry representatives who have long awaited a significant liberalization in Japanese trade practices.

In Washington, the American Electronics Assn., a key high-tech industry trade group, criticized Japan for not proposing specific actions to boost imports of U.S. equipment. The industry has complained that the Japanese government's procurement practices exclude outsiders, particularly those selling telecommunications gear and medical equipment.

However, spokeswoman Debra Waggoner noted that the "rhetoric coming out of Japan the last two weeks has really lowered everyone's expectations."

"Patience is running out among the American medical manufacturers who are intensely interested in seeing results," said David Anast, publisher of the Biomedical Market Newsletter in Costa Mesa.

Others said that the lack of quantifiable import goals in today's package typified Japan's practice of making vague and unenforceable promises.

"The 20-year history of U.S.-Japan trade relations is marked by promises unkept with no numerical guideposts," said Michael C. Maibach, a Washington lobbyist for semiconductor giant Intel Corp.

Still, some industrialists said they saw some reason for optimism in the government program.

"It's a positive step," said McNulty of the Parsons Corp.

Times staff writers Martha Groves, David Holley, David R. Olmos and George White contributed to this report.

* MAIN STORY: A1

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