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For companies, a rocky road ahead in emerging markets

People walk past a currency exchange showing rouble exchange rates in Moscow January 30, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
People walk past a currency exchange showing rouble exchange rates in Moscow January 30, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By James B. Kelleher and Martinne Geller

CHICAGO/LONDON (Reuters) - International companies are taking steps to mitigate the effects of the turmoil in emerging markets, including hedging foreign currency exposure more aggressively, reducing some investment plans, cutting costs, and raising prices frequently.

While executives are not hitting the panic button just yet, and many say the risks they face are hardly unique, they are still aggressively tackling costs and making sure that revenue keeps up with inflationary pressures. And many warn that if China suffers a credit crisis as some fear, then things could get a whole lot worse.

From Africa to Asia to Latin America, policymakers are scrambling to prop up their currencies and prevent a sudden exodus of foreign capital by jacking up interest rates and taking other steps - all this just as many emerging economies were already starting to slow sharply after a decade-long boom.

The sudden onslaught of market volatility in Turkey, Argentina, South Africa and Brazil, along with worries about an abrupt slowdown in China, means companies are now bracing for deeper reversals in demand for their products in emerging economies. And this is happening at a time when their U.S. dollar or euro revenues from many of these countries are also taking a hit because of plunging emerging market currencies.

Automakers Ford Motor Co. and Fiat SpA , home appliance manufacturer Whirlpool Corp and liquor giant Diageo all cited weakness and a more sober outlook in once-roaring emerging markets in earnings reports this week.

Still, for many executives, especially those with decades of experience in the developing world, wild currency swings and economic ups and downs are a fact of life that they must deftly navigate.

"We have had quite a bit of currency changes, particularly in the very weak emerging markets. But let's put it in context," Jeff Fettig, Whirlpool's chairman and chief executive said. "We've been in the Brazilian market for over 60 years and we've managed hyper inflationary periods, busts, booms, and we've never had a loss-making year in Brazil."

Fettig said the appliance maker was not overly concerned that the downturn in emerging markets would significantly affect the company financially, since the most troubled economies account for less than 3 percent of overall revenue. The company has taken steps in countries where currency devaluations had occurred to recoup dollar-based raw materials costs.

Economists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch described the turmoil of the past week as "a perfect storm of idiosyncratic risks" within emerging markets - citing credit risks in China, political crises in Turkey, Ukraine and Thailand, and the currency devaluation in Argentina.

While all these events have further dimmed an already bearish outlook for many emerging economies, a full-fledged crisis does not look likely.

"We do not view the current wobble as the start of an EM-wide crisis," Alberto Ades, co-head of Global Economics Research at BofA Merrill Lynch wrote in a note on Thursday.

TAKING NO CHANCES

Companies with operations in emerging economies are nonetheless dusting off contingency plans, with strategies varying country by country.

"We are taking a wait-and-see attitude in terms of decisive action," said the treasurer of a multi-billion dollar advertising company that books about half its revenue outside the United States. The executive, who asked for anonymity because the company has not yet disclosed fourth-quarter results, said his traders are not actively hedging now for currency volatility but could begin doing so at any minute.

For others, like Swedish apparel retailer Hennes & Mauritz , hedging is a permanent strategy in emerging markets.

"We always live with a bit of currency risk," said H&M Chief Executive Officer Karl-Johan Persson. "We will keep the hedging strategy that we have. We think it works well for us."

While it is impossible to predict exactly where and when economic or market turmoil might arise, most companies constantly monitor the political, economic and financial developments in the countries where they operate.

"Everybody right now is focusing on India, South Africa and Turkey, but the issues there are not new. They just haven't been on the front page," said another corporate treasurer who asked not to be identified.

Even the mightiest of global companies can run into trouble in emerging markets. Wal-Mart Stores Inc , the world's largest retailer, has struggled in hard-to-crack markets like India, Brazil and China. On Friday, it cut its outlook to account for the closure of 50 underperforming stores in the Brazilian and Chinese markets.

While voicing concerns about the year ahead in developing economies, executives from motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson Inc , heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc and Philips all stressed their long-term commitment to those markets.

"Overall, we like emerging markets. What worries me are the currency fluctuations and the unrest in some of the countries," said Frans van Houten, chief executive of Philips, the Dutch healthcare, lighting and consumer appliances company. "I'm cautiously optimistic for the longer term economic development."

Diageo, the world's biggest distilled drinks company, has also seen its sales growth slow in emerging markets in the last six months, especially in China. But the company, which gets about 42 percent of its sales in emerging markets, is betting big that the growing middle class in developing nations will be a driver of growth for years to come.

"You will have economic growth in the emerging markets, even when there are shocks and ups and downs," Diageo CEO Ivan Menezes told reporters on Thursday. He said the company is streamlining operations and seeking to become more agile in some of the more volatile markets.

The volatility is also an opportunity for deep-pocketed players looking to up the ante in emerging markets.

"As far as emerging markets go in real estate, there are some fantastic opportunities all of a sudden because of the flight of capital out ... and the tighter money in those countries," Blackstone Group LP's President Tony James said on a conference call with reporters.

"We're suddenly able to buy real estate properties in fast-growing markets at less than physical replacement cost."

THE WILD CARD: CHINA

For some newcomers and smaller players, though, the challenge in emerging markets may not be worth the headache.

British private equity group 3i said on Thursday it had scrapped plans to raise a new Brazilian fund and that it would not make any new investments there because of changing macroeconomic conditions.

"Brazil remains a really interesting market but conditions have changed over the past 12 months, there is much greater market and political uncertainty and that has also been reflected in currency volatility," the firm's finance director, Julia Wilson, told reporters on a conference call.

Like China, India and other high-profile emerging markets, Brazil was one of the world's economic success stories of the past decade, chalking up lofty growth rates while also lifting more than 30 million people out of poverty. But Brazil has slowed sharply since 2010 under President Dilma Rousseff, whose heavy-handed economic policies have scared off some investors.

The real wild card for emerging markets seems to be China, where signs of strains in the banking system have stirred concerns about the sustainability of Chinese growth.

"China has now become the second-largest economy in the world with a GDP that is more than half that of the U.S. and since 2008 has functioned as the engine of global growth," said Robbert Van Batenburg, director of market strategy at Newedge USA LLC in New York.

"If this escalates into a credit crisis that causes Chinese economic growth to come to an abrupt stop, it will impact almost every nook and cranny of the global economy."

(Additional reporting by Jed Horowitz, Ben Hirschler, Kylie MacLellan, Lewis Krauskopf, Emma Thomasson, Gregory Roumeliotis and David Gaffen; Writing by Todd Benson; Editing by Martin Howell and Grant McCool)

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