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Big Three Face Uncertain Drive Overseas

Competition is also heating up in these markets, where Asian-based automakers like Toyota (TM - Get Report), which is poised to overtake GM as the world's largest automaker, also have a big presence.

Meanwhile, markets like Russia and China have heightened geopolitical risks as a result of the heavy-handed government controls that still exist in their economies. Gaz, for instance, is owned by Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who controls the Russian media, jails political opponents and has rolled back democratic reforms in that country.

"These countries are just dabbling the free market these days," says Merkle. "You couldn't refer to Russia or China as democracies or real free market economies at this point in time. There are real risks there, but people are willing to take those risks if there's a big-enough payback down the road and hopefully trade can push them to open up more."

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