Asia braces for weaker exports as Europe stumbles

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By ALEX KENNEDY, Associated Press

SINGAPORE (AP) — After supplying European customers for more than 40 years with neon bright ornamental fish, Shirley Lim is now looking elsewhere for sales.

Lim, whose business in Singapore and Malaysia grows aquatic plants and breeds colorful fish such as the Checkered Rainbow and Butterfly Barb, said orders from Europe are down by a fifth this year.

"The situation in Europe seems so unpredictable," said Lim of the debt stricken and economically ailing continent that once accounted for as much as 80 percent of her South Island Aquarium company's business. "I'm looking at other Asian markets instead of just concentrating on the EU."

Lim's story is an increasingly familiar one in Asia, for companies big and small. The family run business flourished by operating in a low-cost location and selling its products to countries that while far away, were rich and dependable. Now, those big markets in Europe and the U.S. no longer seem so rich or reliable and Asian countries, while fast-growing, cannot pick up all the slack.

As an austerity-weary Greece votes this weekend in elections that could determine if it stays in the euro and Spain's ailing banks get bailout money, Asia is girding for a worsening Europe crisis that has already stifled demand for exports that have powered growth and given hundreds of millions a higher standard of living.

One of the biggest concerns in Asia is that a sudden Greek exit from the euro common currency will spark panic and freeze global credit such as in the aftermath of the Lehman collapse in 2008.

"Fears are growing of a potential rerun of 2008, this time sparked by Europe," said Frederic Neumann, an economist at HSBC in Hong Kong. "Asia is in a little better shape to withstand a similar shock. But it would still hurt."

How China weathers the European crisis will serve as a harbinger for the rest of Asia. China is not only the region's biggest economy and exporter but it has become the top destination for other leading Asian exporters such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. They feed China's growing domestic market and manufacture many of the components which make up its exports.

Strong growth in emerging Asian economies such as India, Indonesia and Thailand over the last decade has eased the region's dependence on demand from developed markets. But Europe is still China's biggest export market and sales to the continent have fallen 0.8 percent in the first five months of 2012 from the year before.

The debt crisis and economic malaise of the last four years in the U.S. and Europe have helped accelerate the longer-term trend of Asian exporters focusing closer to home and on other emerging regions in search of growing markets for their goods.

Europe used to be a top destination for Yi Haijun's blue and white Chinese porcelain plates, bowls and tea sets. Now he says buyers in France are balking over the price of his $0.85 porcelain lampshades.

"Some of my friends in this industry have even stopped selling to Europe because they can't afford our products like before," said Yi, a third generation porcelain producer in the southern Chinese city of Jingdezhen. "We sell more within China now and to the Middle East."

In India, Asia's third-biggest economy, exports of clothing, footwear, carpets and handicrafts to Europe have slowed sharply this year, said Ajay Sahai, director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organizations.

Weak European demand has Indian companies scrambling to find new customers in South America, Japan, South Africa and Russia, said A. Sakthivel, who manages clothing manufacturer Poppys Knitwear in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu state.

"From September onwards, European importers were asking us to postpone shipments and cancel or reduce orders," said Sakthivel, whose company usually earns over half its revenue from Europe, mostly from cotton T-shirt sales. "From Europe, we don't get many orders now, especially from Greece, Spain and Italy."

So far this year, exports to the U.S. have held up for most Asian countries — despite recent signs of weak jobs growth in the world's largest economy. That has helped to avert a more pronounced economic slowdown. China said over the weekend that its sales to the U.S. jumped 23 percent in May.

Asian exporters are also anxious that a spreading bank crisis in Europe would tighten global credit. To protect against the risk that buyers won't pay after receiving merchandise, exporters often use loans, credit lines or some kind of guarantee from the importer's bank, known as export financing.

Disruptions to export financing in 2008 undermined sales and helped trigger a sharp economic slump in Asia. While Asian companies have sought to broaden their financing sources since the crisis, the region remains vulnerable to a European credit squeeze.

Figures from the Bank for International Settlements show overseas lending, particularly by European banks and in the bank-to-bank market, has been in retreat for months. Japan and Switzerland were the only two nations whose banks increased overseas lending in the final quarter of 2011 but not by enough to offset the overall decline.

Moody's Analytics estimates that should Greece leave the euro and the subsequent financial contagion were limited to Europe, Asian manufacturing growth would likely slow to 5 percent by March 2013 from a year earlier, or 4 percentage points less than if there were no contagion. If contagion spread to the U.S., Asian industrial output would likely fall 8.5 percent in March, Moody's said.

"If Greece does leave, the chances are that the exit will be disorderly," Moody's said. "Asian producers rely on European banks for export financing and would struggle under a scenario of European financial stress."

Low sovereign debt levels, trade surpluses and large foreign currency reserves should cushion Asia from turbulence in Europe and the U.S. The International Monetary Fund expects Europe's economy to contract 0.3 percent this year while the U.S. expands 2.1 percent and emerging Asia grows 7.3 percent.

Policymakers in the region also look poised to start using stimulus measures to arrest the decline in growth after spending most of the last couple years seeking to tame inflation pressures.

Beijing cut interest rates last week for the first time in nearly four years after its economy grew 8.1 percent in the first quarter, the slowest pace in almost three years.

However, inflation fears persist and China and others in Asia will be reluctant to unleash massive stimulus spending like they did in 2008, leaving manufacturers a longer road back to full production in the event of a financial crisis.

"It's simply becoming harder and harder to apply a powerful stimulus without negative side-effects," said HSBC's Neumann.

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AP Business Writer Erika Kinetz in Mumbai, India and AP researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this story.

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