When elephants fight

An old African proverb: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

            Driving past our neat Bermuda grass lawns, I’ve noticed two models of ‘American-made American cars’ in Bermuda.   The Chrysler Corp’s ‘PT Cruiser’, and the General Motors ‘Aveo’.

            These American models currently compete for Bermuda market share with Toyotas and Peugeots and Rovers and Volkswagens and Hyundais.

            In all, car manufacturers from six major industrial nations fight for Bermuda car sales. Six car-making elephants, and more elephants around. With more coming as baby elephants in Brazil, India, China get to their feet.

            Bermuda’s been in elephant fights before. In the 1920’s American farmers as elephants supported by new refrigerating and transport technology, knocked Bermuda out of the onion-growing industry. 

            In the 1980’s, tourism elephants like Jamaica, Bahamas, Belize, and the aggressive and innovative cruise lines that created the new cruise industry, brought their fight onto the grass. These new elephants battled to create new customers and cater to the changing tastes of existing customers.

            In turn, little elephant Bermuda went trampling in the big world of insurance and re-insurance. Bermuda created new insurance products and started fighting with the big insurance elephants of London and Zurich and New York. Bermuda did well and fought its way on to a brand new patch of fresh grass.

            Now, in 2005, Bermuda – in insurance terms – is a bigger elephant and is being fought by the other big insurance elephants. With US and EU regulators pushing for rule and regulation changes, tiny Bermuda is being treated as though as it is the same as the mighty USA.

            Once, General Motors [USA] was the world’s biggest baddest bull elephant. Other little elephants eyed the bull. Many challenged. Some lost and disappeared. Some survived and grew.  One challenger has gotten as big, powerful, and tough as GM.

            Toyota is now GM’s biggest challenger. Toyota has grabbed a huge chunk of the American and world car market from GM – and Ford – and Chrysler. Strong new elephants like Toyota have killed off British manufacturers like the British Motor Corporation [remember them?], and the USA’s Studebaker Corporation [remember them?].

            When elephants fight, bystanders see the result in changes in the terrain. Once, all cars in Bermuda were British-made. Then, Japanese cars started appearing. Soon, British cars were rare and Japanese cars predominant. Then French and German cars nudged their way into Bermuda. After a while, Korean cars made inroads. Now, in the most curious twist of all, American-made cars are finding their way into our Bermuda market.

            The whole scramble for Bermuda car market share sees the mighty USA pitting itself against small Korea.

            In the global elephant fight, the criterion is what can be delivered to the market.  What is delivered depends less on the size of the corporation and more on how closely consumer needs can be met. Also, there is no longer any protecting of markets – as there was when only British-made cars were sold here.

            Now, in the global free-for-all, it’s every country and corporation for itself. The only rule is “get your own piece-of-the-action”. The World Trade Organization [WTO] has eliminated many of the old colonial ‘protections’.  It is working hard to end the remaining few.

            The WTO is working to create a flat economic playing field so that all elephants – big, medium, and little – can tussle on equal terms. The WTO is not concerned about the grass; because the unspoken balance of that African proverb, is that the elephant fight will always move on and the grass will grow back – ready for the next fight.

            HSBC is in at  #1 Front Street; Trimingham’s is playing the ‘Last Post’; our once huge Tourist Industry is now cut in half; Eliot Spitzer is still spitting subpoenas. So Bermuda is just another elephant – admittedly a little ‘un – in a big elephant fight.

            Back in the 1970’s we thought we had a ‘Mummy’ elephant looking after us. Now, in 2005, we should understand that ‘Mummy’ cut us loose over two decades ago, and that we’ve actually been on our own for more than twenty years.

            Practically, Bermuda has been on its own in the same way that GM has been on its own in its fight for its corporate life.  GM was not protected by the US government. Similarly, no other government has protected Bermuda. In this elephant fight, just like GM, we Bermudians are on our own. And Bermuda is much smaller than GM.


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