Global ride gets bumpy for 3M

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 14, 2008 - 10:45 PM

The turbulent world economy is rocking all boats, even stable vessels.

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Fears of a global recession mean multinational blue-chip companies, which have increasingly relied on foreign markets to fuel their growth, have no place to hide.

In recent weeks, investors have dumped the likes of GE, Dow Chemical, Honeywell, 3M and other companies that ramped up foreign operations in recent years, pushing shares in some of those companies to lows not seen in years.

Though prices of some have shown some strength in the past couple of days, economists continue to wonder just how these giants will fare when the dust settles.

It's a serious question for Maplewood-based 3M, which banked its future on overseas growth. It operates in 60 countries and sells products in 200.

Like the shares of Honeywell, Dow Chemical and GE, 3M stocks are selling at about 60 percent of last year's prices as investors seek liquidity while world economies falter.

Cliff Waldman, an economist for Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, said multinational firms had looked pretty smart for diversifying much of their earnings potential overseas while the U.S. market was languishing.

"But our multinational [companies] are not going to be so fortunate anymore," Waldman said. "Our multinational [companies] really have a lot to worry about."

3M, the $26 billion maker of Post-It Notes, Scotch Tape, sandpaper, TV-screen brightening films and 50,000 other products, has spent recent years building and buying factories, technology and distribution centers around the world. The company has operations in Poland, South Korea, China, Singapore, Russia, Taiwan, Brazil, Germany, France, Australia and elsewhere. On Monday, 3M announced its latest acquisition: Financière Burgienne, a provider of finished license plates in France.

3M's globe-trotting seems to have paid off. International operations drove 3M growth as the U.S. economy lagged. 3M now generates about 65 percent of its sales offshore (up from 53 percent in 2001). Last year, international sales grew 10 percent.

After posting record earnings in its second quarter this year -- up 3 percent to $945 million -- 3M CEO George Buckley touted the "outstanding growth" of the company's global portfolio. Going forward, 3M expects China sales alone to triple from $1 billion to $3 billion by 2013. And the company is investing in seed operations in Turkey, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. But analysts say it's anyone's guess how 3M and other giants dependent on fast-growing economies will fare in a global recession.

Stock prices alone don't tell you much, said Edward Jones Research Analyst Dan Ortwerth. He maintains his buy recommendation on 3M's stock but advises caution.

"You are going to see a lot of volatility in stock prices these days because of the sheer amount of uncertainty," Ortwerth said. "In my view, the decline in the stock price of 3M is not pointing the finger nearly so much at 3M as it's pointing at the world in which 3M lives.

"There is still a strong chance that there will be a punch and we should be prepared for dimming figures in the near term [regarding sales] performance numbers," Ortwerth said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if 3M suffers less than some of these more risky players out there and emerges on the other side."

Hitting growth targets in the future could be tough, said Waldman, of the Manufacturers Alliance. Major economies such as Germany, Japan, and France already have slipped into negative territory in the second quarter, he said.

"Japan is getting close to a recession. And the financial crisis in Europe is a mess right now. It's as big a mess as here," Waldman said. "Growth in other key industrialized economies has either stalled or contracted."

Waldman said China's once- thriving export business is at risk. "So 2008 is going to be a problem for multinational companies," he said. "And I would expect that 2009 will be as well."

World stock markets are not a direct indicator of earnings strength. But the unprecedented and seemingly unrelenting waves of bad economic news -- including bank failures, strangled credit markets and wild market swings -- have rattled consumers and led to penny pinching from boardrooms to living rooms.

3M, Minnesota's only member of the Dow industrials, fell from $96 a share a year ago to $51 last week, then closed at $59.37 Tuesday.

Several analysts cut their 3M price targets last week. In March, Merrill Lynch changed its stock recommendation from neutral to underperform. On Oct. 2 Barclays swung from "equal weight positive" to "equal weight neutral." But Goldman Sachs changed its recommendation from sell to neutral on Tuesday.

Company officials seemed to take the bumps in stride.

"We are not having any problems getting the credit we need to fund our operations today," said 3M spokeswoman Jackie Berry. She declined to comment further, citing the quiet period before quarterly earnings are released Oct. 21.

Last month, Buckley and CFO Patrick Campbell told analysts that they expect earnings to rise 10 percent this year despite the international market turmoil.

Retired University of St. Thomas manufacturing professor Fred Zimmerman said 3M has a sound business model and predicts it will perform at about the 85th percentile of U.S. companies over the next few years. That probably will mean a drop in business, he noted.

"But 3M is not like East Coast banks who operate out of high buildings where the air is thin, spend more money than they should, make bad loans, recategorize them as roses and then sell them to other dumb banks," Zimmerman said. "3M will do fine. They have a strong balance sheet."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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