(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ford Motor Co. announced a three-pronged effort on Tuesday to help the U.S. bolster its supply of life-saving medical equipment needed to combat the coronavirus. Even as its North American factories remain shuttered for traditional car-making work, Ford is partnering with General Electric Co. to scale up production of that company’s ventilators; it’s working with 3M Co. to manufacture respirators; and its United Auto Workers employees will assemble more than 100,000 plastic face shields a week. It was an impressive show of goodwill, especially for a company whose bloated balance sheet places it among those most vulnerable from a looming, sharp economic downturn.
And it’s not going to be enough.
Ford expects the first ventilators from its GE partnership — simplified models of what the industrial giant usually makes — to be ready by early June, CEO Jim Hackett told CBS This Morning on Tuesday. Just hours later, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo held a press conference and warned that the coronavirus is spreading faster in the state than previously anticipated, putting the area on course to hit the apex of cases in as soon as 14 days. At that point, it will need 140,000 total hospital beds and an additional 30,000 ventilators. “You cannot buy them, you cannot find them. Every state is trying to get them, other countries are trying to get them,” Cuomo said of ventilators. While the governor said it’s admirable that companies such as Ford and General Motors Co. are willing to get into the business, “it does us no good if they start to create a ventilator in three weeks or four weeks or five weeks.”
Therein lies the problem. On March 16, I wrote about how America needed to once again marshal its great arsenal of democracy and put the nation’s manufacturers to work producing the tools needed to fight the coronavirus. In the absence of leadership by the Trump administration, manufacturers would have to take it upon themselves to fill the void, I wrote. In the days since, I’ve been genuinely awestruck by the reports of companies taking up the call. But the truth is, the void is too big for industry to fill on its own.
President Donald Trump has been reluctant to use the 1950s-era Defense Production Act that gives the government the power to press U.S. industry into service on matters of national need, preferring to orchestrate contributions on a volunteer basis. He did invoke it on Tuesday with regard to production of testing kits and masks, but that fails to address a crucial shortage in ventilators.
It’s great that companies are willing to help on this front without being explicitly ordered to do so, but you still need some sort of a plan. Timing is one issue, with Cuomo arguing a more forceful implementation of the Defense Production Act that gave manufacturers the startup capital needed to repurpose factories could help speed things along. Another is that there are many smaller companies who may not have the capacity to make entire ventilators like Ford can, but could make parts or offer services, if only someone would give them some direction and organize them into workable partnerships. Perhaps the biggest is the question of distribution, as my colleague Joe Nocera has written: Who decides where the ventilators go once they are manufactured?
Apart from the Ford partnership, GE has doubled its capacity of ventilator production since the start of the coronavirus crisis and plans to double it again in the second quarter. That is incredible and commendable. But who gets them? New York, which has the most cases in the U.S.? GE’s home state of Massachusetts? One of the many other countries around the world where GE does business? The government that’s willing to pay the most for them? I’m not trying to cast doubts on GE’s good intentions here, but these are impossible decisions for any company to make on its own. The federal government is sitting on a stockpile of 20,000 ventilators but has been reluctant to deploy all of those to New York, Cuomo said, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency offering a mere 400. “What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?” he said. “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.”
One argument made by the New York Times as to why Trump has been reluctant to apply the Defense Production Act more forcefully is because he doesn’t want to be blamed for how slowly shortages of protective gear and ventilators are addressed. Worded a different way, if true, he is shifting responsibility for that to CEOs who are simply trying to help their country in any way they can, and that is unsustainable.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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