Currency Crisis Has Companies Scurrying : Commerce: Wild fluctuations have made it difficult for firms in Europe to know how to price their products.

From Associated Press

Europe's currency crisis is forcing some companies to change the way they work, while others are left licking wounds caused by violent fluctuations in exchange rates.

The chaos on currency markets has made it impossible to tell how much buying power the British pound, French franc and other currencies will have from day to day. That has made life difficult for firms that do business in foreign countries.

They are reacting in different ways. Exporters from Ireland have been hurt as the low value of the British pound makes their goods comparatively expensive in Britain, their biggest market.

On the other hand, British weavers said they expect to do better because the weak pound makes their merchandise cheaper on overseas markets.

Meanwhile, the giant Dow Chemical Co. Ltd. made a bid to get out of the currency rat race by basing its prices throughout Europe on the value of the German mark, clearly the Continent's most stable currency.

European currencies have been buffeted over the last two weeks by a series of events that included the withdrawal of the flagging British pound and Italian lira from the European Rate Mechanism, a system intended to reduce currency fluctuations.

The markets were also rocked by speculative trading as some investors tried to squeeze profit out of weaker currencies, such as the French franc.

Currency fluctuations have long been a headache for Jimmy Hourihan, who employs 65 people making upscale women's clothing in Dublin, Ireland.

Hourihan sets prices twice a year, leaving him locked in for months selling clothing at the same price to dealers in Britain, the United States, Canada and Japan.

If foreign currencies rise in value against the Irish pound, also known as the punt, Hourihan's receipts are worth less when he banks them.

He is not at all happy about the currency crisis that exploded as the powerful German mark increased in value against such currencies as the Spanish peseta in addition to the British pound and the Italian lira.

"In the short term, we've sold things and as the payment falls due, we get less money," Hourihan said. "Fluctuating currencies are bad for our business. It's bad for any business."

His problems are particularly acute in dealings with Japan. When he first entered that market, buyers did not want to trade in the Irish punt. He agreed to quote prices in U.S. dollars.

But the greenback began slipping about five years ago. So Hourihan began quoting the price of his clothing to the Japanese in British pounds, hoping the switch to sterling would lend stability to his business.

Now he's been watching in dismay as the pound plunged this month, cutting about 8% of the value from each sale he makes in Japan.

"Maybe we should quote them in Irish punts or deutsche (German) marks or Japanese yen," Hourihan said in a telephone interview Friday.

At least one big company knows exactly what Hourihan is saying.

Dow Chemical decided this week to price its products throughout Europe using a structure based on the value of the mark.

Dow's European operations, which recently reported their first quarterly operating loss in about a decade, have seen a number of fixed costs rising. But many of the chemical concern's sales are in countries where the local currencies have been falling and sharply losing buying power.

"Any moves of this kind of size detract from our revenues," said Fernand Kaufmann, sales and commercial vice president for Dow Europe. "We cannot sit back and relax."

Under the mark-based pricing strategy, since the British pound lost nearly 10% of its value against the mark over the last week or so, Dow would increase its prices in Britain by about 10%, Kaufmann said.

Ultimately, Dow would prefer to deal in a single European currency, one of the aims of the 12-member European Community. But reaching that goal has become uncertain amid the chaos that has shaken the foreign exchange markets recently.

The markets were relatively quiet Friday. The French franc, which had fallen sharply earlier this week, showed new signs of strength against the mark.

Traders earlier believed that the franc would be devalued, following the route taken recently by the pound, the lira and the peseta. But the central banks of France and Germany teamed up to defeat speculative selling.

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