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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 16:32 GMT
Foreign firms weigh Argentina fall-out
Foreign firms doing business in Argentina have put a brave face on the Latin American country's collapse into an official state of siege.
For household goods maker Unilever, Argentina's state of emergency came less than 24-hours after it told analysts of its confidence that its brands - such as Lux soap - will pick up market share despite Argentina's financial crisis.
But Argentine shoppers have not been stopping to pay at tills this week as police struggled to quell looting.
Unilever was undaunted. "We actually have a huge amount of experience in dealing in markets that have economic challenges," Unilever spokesman Mike Haines told BBC News Online.
Just the job
The firm has weathered past financial meltdowns and unrest in Russia, Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil, he points out.
Other major companies in Argentina include HSBC, the London and Hong-Kong based bank, international energy firm Shell, Spanish, French and Italian phone firms, and publishing giant Pearson.
Foreign investment has poured into Argentina in recent years as overseas firms have invested in telecoms, banking and oil.
Total foreign direct investment amounted to $60bn (£41.4bn; 66.8bn euro) between 1995 and 2000, says Peter West, a London-based economist for Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA).
Pain in Spain
Much of the money has come from Europe, in particular from Spain, a fact that was reflected in falling share prices, especially of banking stocks, when the Madrid Stock Market opened on Thursday.
Oil has received the largest slice of foreign investment. Spanish oil firm Repsol bought Argentina's former state oil company YPF in 1999 for about $14bn.
Telecoms have been another popular sector. Argentina's two main phone firms are owned by Spain's Telefonica and an alliance of Telecom Italia and France Telecom.
The banking sector has also attracted foreign investment. HSBC, for instance took control of its Argentine operations to create HSBC Bank Argentina in 1997.
Shares in the banking giant fell 4.3% on Friday due to concerns about the bank's outstanding $2.5bn loans in Argentina.
Also on Friday the Dutch financial services group ING said it had exposure of 750m euros ($670.9m, £466m) to Argentina.
But ING said most of the exposure was secured and it did not intend to set aside any extra money to cover bad debts.
Shares in ING had fallen as investors worried about its exposure, but its statement calmed nerves and ING's shares were up 1.1% in afternoon trade.
Spanish banks BBVA and Santander Central Hispano also have significant exposure to Argentina.
A long time coming
Banks and other firms said the crisis in Argentina has been developing for a long time, giving them plenty of time to protect themselves against it.
Analysts have given some backing to this view that the crisis will not bring any major fall-out for international companies.
"I think it's effectively discounted. People have been worrying about Argentina for a long time now," said Graham Secker of Morgan Stanley in London, referring to British banks.
'In for the long term'
A spokesman for HSBC in London ranked the bank's exposure to Argentina at less than 1% of the group's assets, or $4bn, during the first six months of this year.
"We will continue to monitor the situation very carefully," said HSBC spokesman Adrian Russell. "We're in Argentina for the long term."
The risk of Argentina's problems hitting HSBC's bigger market in Brazil exists but is slight, he added.
HSBC's total assets in Latin America were $19.3bn and the region contributed 2.9% to total group profits, so any regional overspill of Argentina's problems could have a serious impact.
Unilever is holding firm to the view it may be able to pick up market share in the crisis, though margins may be squeezed.
"Our management are in a strong position to face any of these challenges", said Unilever's spokesman.
Argentina is Unilever's third largest market in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico, and accounted for less than 15% of the region's sales in 2001.
Unilever's sales in Argentina this year are forecast at $1bn or 2% - "a tidy sum but in percentage terms not a huge element of the Unilever empire", said Mr Haines.
Publishing giant Pearson warned earlier in the week that its Latin American market has "continued to deteriorate", forcing it to "take actions which will reduce our profits for this year".
Pearson was not immediately available for comment on the impact of the latest developments.
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