BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - Few companies are making plans for a break-up of the euro zone or a deeper debt crisis and many believe they could yet escape unscathed if executive views at an investor conference this week are any guide.
Instead, most companies are responding to the prolonged economic uncertainty in the euro zone and the United States by turning inwards and focusing on things they can control. A few appeared to be in outright denial of a crisis.
The mood at Morgan Stanley’s annual technology, media and telecoms conference in the Spanish city of Barcelona, was surprisingly upbeat, with many of the speakers comparing the current situation favorably to the Lehman crisis of 2008.
“At the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 we had a cliff, and suddenly we had clients cutting 15, 20 percent. What we have currently is not so dramatic,” said Maurice Levy, chief executive of ad agency Publicis.
Most of the hundred or so company executives focused on bright spots in their industry, such as a cyclical upturn expected in the semiconductor industry, while others looked to cut more costs.
Their apparent lack of concern may be a factor of the sectors they are in, where structural turbulence is the principal worry. The Internet continues to threaten traditional media, perpetual technology advances rapidly commoditize new gadgets and equipment, and incumbent Western telecoms carriers are grappling with stagnant domestic markets.
But Martin Sorrell, CEO of the world’s biggest advertising group WPP, put it down partly to a kind of fatigue with constant crisis.
“I think people who run businesses have just sort of lost patience really,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.
“You can’t wait for the problems to be solved because you have a business to run. So you try and do the best you can in an uncertain environment.”
In Europe, politicians and the European Central Bank are each urging each other to act faster to tackle an escalating debt crisis that began with Greece but now risks engulfing Italy, Spain and even France.
The crisis is threatening to derail a burgeoning economic recovery in the United States, where a so-called “super committee” is trying to reach a deficit-cutting deal to avert automatic countrywide public spending cuts.
“Is there going to be a new government in every European country? What is it going to do? Is there going to be austerity? Who knows?” asked John Wren, CEO of U.S. advertising agency Omnicom.
“If the governments are not very bright and start sending messages out that, yes, we have serious problems and, yes, we will all solve them together, who knows what happens. But the things we can control, the things that our clients can control, we’re pretty confident about that.”
Omnicom reported a 13 percent rise in third-quarter sales last month. But when asked about the outlook for 2012, Wren said: “We fully expect that growth will be there, but I can’t really give you a solid projection.”
Sorrell said the uncertainty would likely benefit advertising agencies in the short term, as companies put some of their cash piles accumulated in the new spirit of conservatism since the Lehman crash to work.
“When you’re faced with these uncertainties, you don’t want to take a risk, particularly post-Lehman. Boards... are terrified of making mistakes,” he said. “So you don’t invest in capacity but you do invest in brand.”
Sorrell forecast that WPP’s organic sales growth would slow but not crash — to 4 percent next year from an expected 5 percent this year.
Telecoms operators are already being hit by cuts in consumer spending, especially in southern Europe where many have introduced new, cheaper tariffs.
As fears grow that the crisis will seep into the core of the euro zone, France Telecom’s Deputy CEO Gervais Pellissier told Reuters his company was not affected yet but he was worried.
“Who would not worry? he asked. “This is not a bank crisis, it is a sovereign debt crisis that can be solved only by more tax or more inflation or less spending. All of those three factors will have an impact.”
Operators in mature, western markets have, however, already been expanding into faster-growth economies for some time as growth has slowed at home.
Nordic carriers Telenor and TeliaSonera have been among the most aggressive, and are also shielded by being outside the euro zone, although much of their trade depends on it.
Telenor’s chief financial officer said his company’s Swedish business could be affected by the crisis, although Swedish operator TeliaSonera’s finance chief said there was little evidence of impact there so far.
“In Sweden, when you look around the area where we are situated with our office in the center of Stockholm it is very difficult to even get a table for lunch,” he said.
In Germany, whose economy is still growing and which has yet to feel the impact of weakness in its export markets, spending is still strong, said Axel Springer, publisher of Europe’s best-selling tabloid, Bild.
“I’m still optimistic for the economy because... everybody talks about the crisis but in the real industry it has not yet arrived and there is no reason why it should arrive,” said CFO Lothar Lanz.
“Perhaps in springtime everybody will say: ‘Where is the crisis?’ The same as people say now in Germany,” he said. “If you look at the car industry, the major industries in Germany, they are all doing extremely well, still.”
Carmaker Daimler, however, last week became the first major German exporter to cast doubt on the wisdom of keeping Greece in the euro zone, in a signal that Germany’s feeling of immunity may be waning.
Logitech, the world’s biggest maker of computer mice, called for politicians to do more, but suggested that for now weaker consumer spending was limited to big-ticket items.
“As a citizen, I am increasingly worried about the economy. I am praying European politicians can do something about the euro. German politicians could do a better job explaining this to their citizens,” he said.
“As CEO of Logitech, I am less concerned. Our price points are less impacted. Our products are sold below check-with-your-spouse threshold.”
Additional reporting by Tarmo Virki; Editing by Andrew Callus