Corporates catch sub-prime virus


 This is when it could all get very serious. Until now, the financial crisis that hit the United States last summer has been confined to that sector; the write-downs, plummeting share prices and executive departures have all come from the banking, investment, share trading and other financial groups. The action taken by the Federal Reserve in cutting interests rates was a financial fix to what was regarded as an essentially financial problem.


But the financial sector has always been a lead indicator of the broader economic scene. Market crashes come before the contagion spreads to the general economy. And don’t forget that this was a crisis sparked by the financial “experts”, in their endless search for new products to push down the throats of consumers.


But now there are signs that the wider corporate world is going to experience the aftershocks of the credit and sub-prime crises in a big way.


Last week the US industrial giant GE – long regarded as a bell-whether for the global economy – stunned the markets with a sharp and unexpected drop in first quarter profits, blaming the US recession for a drop in demand for its key products in healthcare and electronics – and of course, the weakness of its financial business.


On Tuesday, the sickness appeared to spread inevitably to Europe, where the Dutch electronics giant Philips also shocked shareholders by announcing a drop in first quarter figures.


When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold, they say, but it looks now as though the Europeans will have to reach for the influenza medication in a big way.


Other big industrial groups, like Siemens and Linde of Germany, are warning that the full effects of the financial crisis will not come through to the wider industrial until six to nine months from now. That is a frightening prospect. In the next couple of weeks in America, we will get a much clearer picture of the damage to the broad corporate world, when most of the big business corporations that go to make up USA Inc will report their first quarter results.


I think we will all be in for a surprise. The big corporate analysis departments of Wall Street have all cut their profits estimates for the financial sector, but so far the wider industrial groupings have not been significantly affected.


Chief executives and finance directors tend to behave in a herd-like fashion in this respect. When one big industrial announces it has missed a profit forecast, all the rest argue that they too must come out with gloomy figures. To run against the trend is to risk surprising the shareholders with bad news some time in the near future – which is perhaps the most damaging single factor for a company’s share price.  So I think we can expect some pretty bad news from the US giants in coming weeks, and for this negativity to continue for the rest of the year.


In a recent study, Citigroup – and it should know – estimated there was a nine to 12 month time-lag between the affects of the credit crunch and its wider affects of industrial activity.


In previous recessions, corporates took the opportunity to write down profits by up to 30 per cent – with all the consequent repercussions for dividends, employment and general economic activity.


Now the US, and the European economies, are much more dependent on consumer spending. I have a feeling this recession will be deeper and longer than anybody has so far predicted.


What does that mean for the economies of the Gulf? So far, the general wisdom is that because of rising oil prices and huge capital surpluses, the region is almost quarantined from the global malaise. These factors will endure, though oil is still the big imponderable.


Most experts are now forecasting a general fall in world commodity prices, but there is no such consensus on oil.


With America the biggest trading partner of most GCC economies, there is bound to be a serious knock-on effect from the US industrial downturn.


It is still far too early to call the end of this crisis, or to forecast accurately that the Gulf region will be spared the gloom now descending on the USA and Europe.