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The U.S. economy sneezed and the Far East caught pneumonia. Now, the question is: Will an already enfeebled corporate America come down with a dose of the Asian flu?
Economic experts believe the slowdown in non-Japan Asia is the latest crack to appear in the global economy. Non-Japan Asia, including countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, is especially dependent on trade with other nations -- it's pretty much up to the U.S. and Europe to pull such trade-dependent economies out of the doldrums. U.S. dependence on non-Japan Asia, on the other hand, is muted. Exports to the region are limited and the region accounts for less than 9% of total foreign affiliate income. Yet some U.S. companies will suffer, nonetheless.
"Any slowdown in places like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand is going to impact the sales of U.S. corporations of food -- product groups and franchises like
," says Joseph Quinlan, Morgan's chief global economist.
Quinlan compares the extant slowdown in Southeast Asia to the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, when the potent mix of political and financial weakness toppled the economies of the Asian Tigers and led to a collapse of consumer demand in the region. "Now you're seeing a collapse in investment demand. It still hurts, but it's not as dramatic as the downturn in consumption. But the big 'but' is this: Consumer demand could weaken as the unemployment rate rises among tech workers in Malaysia and Singapore. The key is profit deterioration we've seen in
the IT sector could easily spread to other parts of the economy, particularly the consumption side."
Consumer products aside, chip-equipment-makers like
, which posted second-quarter earnings Monday night and warned of "significant uncertainty in the semiconductor industry," are dependent on the Asian chipmakers.
In his latest economic prognosis, chief economist Stephen Roach at Morgan Stanley lowered his 2001 world GDP growth estimate from 2.5% to 2.4% -- the "smoking gun of the global recession call" -- due to the "significant downward revision" to his growth forecast for non-Japan Asia.
The latest symptom of slowing came Tuesday. The
Trade Development Board
of Singapore said the island state registered a significant drop in the nation's external trade for June as well as the first half of 2001 in general. The sharpest fall was from nonoil domestic exports to the U.S., which tumbled by 16.9% in June, and by 11.1% in the first half of 2001.
"This was in tandem with the slowing U.S. economy, as well as the downturn in global electronics demand," the report said, singling out the steep downturn in demand for electronic items like integrated circuits, disk drives, PCs and telecommunication equipment. The Trade Development Board also took down its forecast for total trade in the second half of 2001, citing expectations for a 25% drop in global semiconductor demand and waning growth in the U.S.
This all comes a week after Singapore unexpectedly declared it was mired in a recession and slashed its year-end economic growth forecast to between 0.5% and 1.5%, down from 3.5% to 5.5%. Observers expect others in the region to follow suit, and the global slowdown to spread.
Indeed, while the region may not be a big trading partner of the U.S., the real danger for some U.S. companies is that their struggling Asian counterparts, faced with excess inventories, weak global demand and the relative strength of the U.S. dollar, could undercut them in the global marketplace.
According to data from the Foreign Trade Division of the
U.S. Census Bureau
, imports of advanced technology products to the U.S. from January to April totaled $68.6 billion, up from $64.3 billion in the same four-month period in 2000, and $53.1 billion in 1999. And the U.S. dollar has been taking up weight; the Singapore dollar lost 4.8% of its value against the dollar in the last 12 months, for example, while the Taiwan dollar shed 13.1% of its value over the same period.
"Nobody in Asia's threatening
as a software developer," says Bruce Kasman, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan. "
But if you look at any element of the U.S. economy on the goods-producing side, there's been significant import penetration in the last three or four years. The situation's intensifying, there's no doubt about that. Ever since the Asian crisis, the dollar has been quite strong against the Asian currencies and these economies are generally weak, with a fair amount of excess capacity."
Given these conditions, there are reasons to believe the profits squeeze felt by many U.S. tech firms could worsen. The U.S. economy may be immune to the Asian flu. But until countries around the globe shape up, corporate America will be wheezing for a while.