Dollar's fall has Europe rethinking exports

Some firms plan to build U.S. plants

November 20, 2007|By Geraldine Baum | Geraldine Baum,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARIS -- At Yves Saint Laurent, the storied French design house that manufactures exclusively in Europe, the plunging value of the U.S. dollar has CEO Valerie Hermann thinking about the number of pockets on a skirt and the price of embroidery on a dress.

Hermann is adamant that YSL must include in its ready-to-wear offerings cocktail dresses that don't cost more than 1,900 euros. "It's a crucial limit," she said.

Six months ago, that was the equivalent of $2,565. Today, she'd have to sell the same garment for $215 more to make the same profit. But Hermann can't because she is reluctant to pass on the increase to the consumer.

So if Herman can eliminate a pocket on a garment without sacrificing the integrity of its design, she will. "I have never been as careful as I am now to look at the entry-level price of a product," she said. "Because I know that currently in the U.S., the market is driven by that, and, to a greater extent, by this currency problem."

The euro's rise and dollar's slide are squeezing European exporters' profits or multiplying their losses, prompting layoffs and plant closings.

Firms are not only curbing production of goods headed to U.S. buyers but also rethinking the way they do business.

The euro recently passed the record $1.47 mark, gaining 11.5 percent since the beginning of the year against the greenback. A strong British pound, moribund Japanese yen and undervalued Chinese yuan also play roles in this tale of currency chaos, from a European exporter's perspective.

Most emblematic of the problem has been the impact of the euro/dollar relationship on the aeronautics industry - and particularly on France's Airbus SAS, whose main rival is Boeing Co. of Chicago .

With a falling dollar making Boeing's products cheaper outside the United States and Airbus' more expensive, Louis Gallois, chief executive of Airbus' parent EADS, recently described the sinking U.S. currency as a "sword of Damocles" hanging over the company's future. He vowed to cut an additional 1 billion euros in operating costs by 2010 or 2011.

This would mean more layoffs at a company that is already purging 10,000 jobs - a decision made when the euro equaled $1.35. "We must react," Gallois told a French radio station this month.

Last week, speaking at the Dubai Airshow, Airbus chief executive Tom Enders further spelled out the problem: "As you know, if the dollar decreases by 10 cents, we are challenged to save another 1 billion euros. Therefore, Airbus is currently undergoing a fundamental turn-around of the company. In a nutshell: A `new Airbus' is under way."

Less profound but no less critical is the impact on other European companies that export sophisticated equipment, technology, cosmetics, cars and luxury goods. For firms that make a large portion of their sales in the United States or compete with firms that deal in dollars, survival depends on raising prices, cutting costs or hedging currencies.

Nearly every day, another company announces more lost earnings and job cuts and blames the currency commotion. Last month it was Britain's Rolls Royce declaring that it wants to move 230 jobs and its operations for making industrial turbines from its plant near Liverpool to one in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The company blamed high costs and the strength of the pound against the dollar for the decision.

Infineon, Germany's top semiconductor maker, with almost 8 billion euros, or $11.7 billion, in annual sales and 41,500 employees, announced earlier this month that it lost 150 million euros or nearly $220 million in the latest quarter because of the weak dollar.

Exports generate nearly half of Germany's gross domestic product, and if the dollar hits $1.50 against the euro, German bankers are predicting the whole economy will suffer.

"For a while, European companies had wiggle room for the falling dollars to eat up their profit margins," said Alan Ahearan, an economist at Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels, Belgium. "But it's fallen so much it's no longer profitable to sell in the U.S. They can't compete with U.S. or Asian firms in the U.S. So they're going to have to reduce European exports, and that implies layoffs and downward pressure to the European economy."

Many companies are simply trying to find new ways to trim their euro-based operations, and in the case of some luxury firms, that involves lifting the taboo against relocating outside of Europe.

Armani, Prada and Boss are already "assembling" parts of the second and third lines of their collections in China. Other companies make bags, coats and household products in eastern Europe.

Recently, Louis Vuitton, always particular about the provenance, decided to open a shoe factory at a 30-acre site near Pondicherry, India, according to reports in the European and Indian press.

The shoes that come out of that factory will still carry the "Made in Italy" label because Indian workers will be attaching soles to upper parts made in Italy.

Geraldine Baum writes for the Los Angeles Times. Special correspondent Rebecca Ruquist contributed to this article.

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