Japan quake threatens to disrupt auto shipments

DETROIT Fri Mar 11, 2011 11:55am EST

DETROIT (Reuters) - The massive earthquake on Friday in Japan threatens to crimp U.S.-bound exports of Japanese vehicles and parts in coming months, straining an already stretched supply base in the recovering industry.

All major ports in Japan were shut on Friday after the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami. If ports remain shut for an extended period, exports of Japanese automobiles to North America could be delayed, analysts said.

"It's a very bad situation," said Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group.

"Japan has excellent ports but they're going to be the focus of rescue efforts. I don't know how much (non-relief shipping) is going to be going out for while," he said.

North American-based auto plants could also be affected if parts shipments are delayed, Virag said.

Toyota Motor Corp said it has stopped production at two assembly plants and a parts factory in northern Japan.

The smallest Toyota model sold in the North American market, the Yaris, is built at one of the shuttered plants, near Sendai.

U.S. demand for smaller and fuel-efficient cars like the Yaris is expected to rise with gasoline prices just as vehicle sales hit their seasonal stride in late spring and summer.

Earlier this month, Toyota said slim inventory of its Lexus luxury brand were hurting sales in North America. All of the Lexus models sold in North America are made in Japan with the exception of the RX sport utility vehicle.

Baird analyst David Leiker said infrastructure damage from the quake could affect the shipments of parts and vehicles.

"The situation requires watching," Leiker said in a note for clients. "The Japanese supply base ships components around the world and (this) could have a ripple effect anywhere."

The Toyota plant in Japan that makes the Prius, which dominates sales of hybrid cars, remained operational on Friday, said a U.S.-based Toyota spokeswoman.

Toyota's Tohoku car parts factory production was shut, and production was suspended at a plant that Toyota runs jointly with Panasonic Corp that produces batteries for hybrid vehicles.

U.S. GASOLINE PRICES SPIKING

In 2008, the last time that U.S. average gasoline prices were as high as they are now, Toyota took advantage of the truck-heavy lineups of U.S. automakers and increased sales of its much more fuel-efficient models.

Average U.S. gasoline prices are up about 40 cents in the past two weeks to near $3.55 per gallon.

Honda Motor Co Ltd's subcompact Fit is imported from Japan for the North American market.

A Honda spokesman said that 91 percent of the Honda cars and trucks sold in North America are made locally, including best-selling models like the Accord and Civic sedans.

Honda's Sayama auto assembly plant was shut on Friday and its Suzuka assembly plant halted production for a short time but restarted on Friday, the company told Reuters in Japan. Both plants are near Tokyo.

Honda's Suzuka factor makes the Accord and a version of the Odyssey. Those models are not shipped to North America.

A man was killed and 30 workers were injured at Honda facilities in Tochigi on Friday.

A Honda parts plant there also was shut. That plant makes crankshafts and other transmission parts.

Nissan Motor Co halted production at all four of its auto assembly plants in Japan, including plants in the severely hit Tochigi and Fukushima prefectures.

All five of the auto assembly and parts plants for Subaru brand vehicles halted operations, according to Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd, its parent company.

Auto manufacturing represented about 17 percent of Japan's industrial output in 2008, according to Baird.

The severe downturn in U.S. auto sales in 2008 and 2009 drove many parts suppliers out of business and forced others to retrench sharply.

The restructuring has improved profitability for remaining suppliers but has also stretched them so thin that even relatively minor disruptions can force wide shutdowns of auto assembly plants, executives have said.

Toyota's U.S.-traded shares were down 2.7 percent Friday morning at $85.19.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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