When Europe sneezes, NW companies may catch cold
Europe's financial crisis is bad news for companies in the Pacific Northwest that sell goods and services to the region or have major operations there.
Seattle Times business reporter
Last year's Japanese tsunami isn't the only overseas disaster whose wreckage is likely to wash up on Northwest shores.
Europe's seemingly endless fiscal crisis, which has helped drag the Continent back to the brink of recession and threatens to torpedo the euro as a common currency, is bad news for Pacific Northwest companies that export goods and services to the region or have major operations there.
Just how bad? Investors and others will learn more this month, as most companies report their results for the second quarter — a period that included two Greek elections, a multibillion-euro bailout for Spain, and innumerable summits where leaders tried to stem the crisis.
In the first quarter of the year, Washington's exports of products to Europe were down more than 26 percent compared with the same period in 2011 — $2.44 billion versus $3.3 billion, according to data from the U.S. International Trade Administration (ITA).
Meanwhile the state's worldwide exports grew by 25 percent, mainly due to Asia and the Middle East, which received a sharp increase in transportation equipment.
The European Union collectively accounted for nearly 14 percent of Washington's exported products last year, according to the ITA data. Add in non-EU countries such as Turkey and Norway, and the share grows to nearly one of every five export dollars.
Though much of the Northwest's economy is geared toward Asia and the Pacific, several Seattle-area companies look to Europe for sizable chunks of their business.
Bellevue-based truck manufacturer Paccar, for instance, reported 37 percent of its vehicle sales last year were in Europe, and 31.3 percent of its 2011 revenue came from there — primarily through DAF, its Dutch truck subsidiary.
But in the first quarter of this year, Paccar's European revenues were down 5.8 percent compared with a year earlier.
In April, the company cut its forecast for industrywide heavy-truck sales in Europe to 210,000 to 230,000 units, from 241,000 last year.
Harrie Schippers, president of Paccar's DAF unit, said at the time that the market was "being impacted by economic challenges in the eurozone," and that truck manufacturers were cutting production in response. A company representative did not respond to a request for further comment on its European exposure.
Companies that derive significant revenue from eurozone countries also will be hurt by the euro's falling value against the dollar. A year ago, a euro was worth more than $1.40; now it's around $1.22
The European crisis is, in truth, several crises with varying root causes in different countries: bursting real-estate bubbles in Ireland and Spain, years of chronic government overspending in Greece and Portugal, bank investments in Greek government debt in Cyprus.
Bailing out those countries has cost hundreds of billions of euros already, with fears that the bill will skyrocket should the crisis spread further.
Fueling those fears is the fact that several other European countries — Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands — have fallen back into recession, and more are teetering on the brink.
The divide between strong and weak economies also has exposed longstanding frailties in the 17-nation eurozone, whose countries share a common currency without having common fiscal policies or banking regulations.
Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for IHS Global Insight, said Europe likely will avoid a complete economic meltdown, of the sort that occurred in September 2008, even if Greece ultimately abandons the euro.
But growth has slowed sharply even in strong countries such as Germany and France, he said, and the eurozone as a whole probably will be in recession through the middle of 2013.
Such a prolonged, albeit shallow, recession will disproportionately affect certain industries, Behravesh said, including high-tech, pharmaceuticals and high-value manufacturing.
Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said that so far the crisis hasn't affected the plane-maker's order book — even though the International Air Transport Association projects European airlines will lose a combined $1.1 billion this year.
"Is this having an impact on the aviation market? Yes," Tinseth said. "But while we have one market being hit pretty hard, we have growing traffic and self-sustaining business models elsewhere."
So far, Boeing's orders from Europe have not just held steady but accelerated throughout the long-running crisis.
But significantly, most of the 344 orders Boeing has received from Europe since the start of 2010 have come from three countries that are outside the European Union and don't use the euro: Norway, Russia and Turkey.
Not so fortunate is Everett-based Intermec, which makes mobile computers, bar-code scanners, radio-frequency ID tags and other devices for automated identification and data collection.
Intermec gets nearly a third of its revenue from Europe, the Middle East and Africa (the "EMEA" region). Those revenues had grown strongly the past two years, a bright spot for a company that has yet to fully recover from the recession.
But in the first quarter, EMEA revenues fell 17 percent versus the year-earlier quarter. Excluding a recent acquisition, the decline would have been 25 percent.
"Europe had been one place where they had been strong," said Tavis McCourt, an analyst who follows Intermec for Raymond James & Associates.
"But (the business) is very economically sensitive. It's the type of industry where in an outright recession industry revenues are down 20 percent or so, though in recoveries it grows very fast."
In April, Intermec's board fired Chief Executive Patrick Byrne. Last month, the company said it would lay off 170 workers (about 7 percent of its global workforce) as part of a larger restructuring.
Intermec declined to comment, citing a "quiet period" ahead of its quarterly earnings report later this month.
Itron, a company based in suburban Spokane that makes electricity, gas and water meters, has held up better.
Its EMEA sales, which make up well over a third of total revenue, declined just 1.2 percent in the first quarter relative to a year earlier.
"They sell 100 percent exclusively to utilities, and generally speaking utilities are among the more stable and financially sound institutions in Europe — sometimes even more so than their governments," said John Quealy, who follows Itron for Canaccord Genuity.
European utilities, most of which are either owned, controlled or heavily regulated by national governments, have not changed their capital-spending plans as a result of the Continent's economic travails, Quealy said: "Utilities tend to think in decades-long time frames, so whatever happens in the next six months or so may not matter much."
The exception, not surprisingly, may be Greece, which is using its main power utility to collect a special property tax imposed as a condition of its bailout.
As a consequence, increasing numbers of Greek consumers are refusing to pay their electricity bills, and the Greek government has had to bail out the utility.
Itron did not respond to questions about the impact of Europe's problems on its sales.
Not every Northwest-based multinational provides much geographic detail on its sales. Microsoft and Starbucks, for instance, sell plenty of software and coffee in Europe, but both companies only break down revenues into "United States" and "other countries."
Though much of the discussion of Washington's international trade focuses on goods, service exports — a category that includes software, tourism, foreign students and freight handling — totaled over $23 billion last year, according to the Washington Council on International Trade. Of the 10 largest importers of Washington's services, five are European.
European countries — notably the U.K., Germany and France — also account for nearly a third of foreign visitors to Seattle, the council says, citing federal data. Should conditions in their home countries deteriorate to the point where more stay home, council President Eric Schinfeld said, local businesses will suffer.
"If you go downtown and see all the foreign tourists walking around, that's money jingling in somebody's pocket," he said.
One thing working in the Northwest's favor is that its European exposure tends to be weighted toward the stronger nations in northern Europe (Ireland being the glaring exception), rather than the seriously troubled countries in southern Europe.
As Schinfeld put it, "We're better hedged than if Spain were our major trading partner."
Drew DeSilver: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org