Asia Drops Lump of Coal Into Corporate Outlook

Absence of Optimism

Corporate America, which has enjoyed stunning profit gains through most of the 1990s, suddenly faces slower times.

Coca-Cola, Boeing, Oracle, and dozens of other companies have seen stock prices plunge in recent weeks because of their links to East Asia.

"The chill wind from Asia is beginning to affect US corporate earnings," says Bruce Steinberg, chief economist at Merrill Lynch & Co. His firm estimates that US companies derive 7 percent of total earnings from the region.

But companies won't bear the burden equally.

"Next year will be a year of complex cross-currents that are hard to read today," says Alan Ackerman, market strategist at Fahnestock & Co. in New York. "We're all looking into an especially cloudy crystal ball."

Continued low inflation and low unemployment at home will enable most US companies to squeak by without too much harm next year.

But a strong dollar and slackening demand in East Asia makes it more difficult for US firms to sustain exports. High-tech firms, with much of their business overseas, could be especially vulnerable.

On the import side, slumping Asian currencies (down more than 50 percent in some cases) will accelerate the flow of goods to the United States.

Asian exporters are likely to seize a bigger chunk of US market share.

Also, Asian manufacturers are unable to borrow from troubled local banks, so they are slashing prices in a desperate effort to raise cash.

The shocks from financial market turmoil will hit US multinational corporations far beyond East Asia and America.

"In my scenario, Asia depresses US and global economic activity mostly by depressing prices and profits around the world," says Edward Yardeni, chief economist at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell in New York. He foresees a slowdown in both hiring and capital spending.

The upshot: Foreign earnings will rise about 10 percent next year, or about half as fast as this year.

Merrill Lynch foresees a drop in domestic earnings growth from 10 percent to 7 percent.

The heat from the East Asian meltdown will vary from sector to sector. Technology, the industry most exposed to Asia, will be burned the worst. Also hurt: makers of industrial capital goods, consumer durable goods such as automobiles, and basic industries like steel, analysts say.

Industries most sheltered from the storm include regional banks, insurance companies, utilities, and communications - sectors with tenuous links to East Asia. Utilities and communications sectors derive just 5 percent of total sales from the region, says Merrill Lynch.

And the wind from Asia is not all foul. Indeed, Carl Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., calls Asia-induced deflation "Alan Greenspan's little helper."

The Federal Reserve, under Chairman Greenspan, has been able to avoid raising interest rates in part because East Asia tumult has cooled inflationary pressures.

The mix of low inflation and falling interest rates is a boon to US companies. These forces could create a floor, however shifty, for earnings, say analysts.

But Coca-Cola stands to lose. It generates an estimated 17 percent of its profit from Japan, and has seen the yen sag 8 percent against the dollar. Other currencies in Asia have fallen even more, harming Coke's dollar-denominated profits.

Boeing has also lowered its profit outlook. The jetmaker says Asian airlines might postpone delivery of as many as 60 aircraft in the next three years.

For many other companies the turbulence in Asia hits both ways.

Automakers expect aggressive export strategies from Japan and South Korea, as they look for bigger market share. But the strong dollar has compelled General Motors and Ford to speed up factory construction in the region, says David Cole, who studies the auto industry for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The East Asia tremors could jar even seemingly insulated companies.

John Deere & Co. ships less than 1 percent of its overseas exports to Asia. But declining demand from the region is undercutting grain prices. That could dampen farmers' spending next year on farming machinery.

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