Exporters caught in dollar doldrums

  • 2002-08-01
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis, VILNIUS
The Lithuanian economy is booming, but manufacturers exporting their goods to the United States, Russia and other countries in the so-called dollar zone are feeling the pinch of a weakening dollar.

The U.S. dollar has depreciated by 13 percent against the litas since the Lithuanian national currency was repegged to the euro in February. Once locked at 4 litas per dollar, the dollar-litas rate plunged as low as 3.5 litas in July, making Lithuanian products more expensive for potential clients in the dollar zone.

Those hardest hit have been second-hand car exporters whose main market is the Commonwealth of Independent States - particularly Russia, but cheese exporters to the United States also claim they are suffering.

The trend has been especially harmful for Marijampole, a southwestern town with a dollar driven economy where the plush houses which dot the area are testament to recent profits.

Marijampole is home to the largest automobile market in Central and Eastern Europe, making it largely responsible for Lithuania's position as the seventh largest auto seller in Europe, though the city manufactures no cars.

Most are bought in Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands by Marijampole residents using euros, and then sold for dollars to buyers in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other parts of the C.I.S., where distrust of the euro remains strong.

It's not that fewer cars are changing hands in Marijampole, but the large number of sellers has created a buyers' market and profit margins are falling. This has serious consequences for a town where a third of the male population is directly engaged in selling cars and where 60 percent of the whole population is involved either in car sales or spin-off businesses such as the sale of car parts, vehicle repairing and car washing.

"We are making some 1,000 litas (290 euros) less per car because of the weaker dollar," said one trader, Kestutis Baranauskas. "We go to the EU to buy cars, we spend euros traveling there and staying in hotels so we are losing a lot."

Cheese exporters to the United States say they are suffering equally badly. Lithuania is the United States' fifth largest source of cheese imports according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Lithuania's share of the U.S. market is 6.5 percent and this amounts to 55 percent of all Lithuanian cheese production.

But in July a major cheese exporter, Rokiskio Suris, announced 7 percent wage cuts for all employees citing a loss of business due to the declining dollar.

But not everyone is convinced by the company's arguments because cheese exports to the United States continue to grow and reached 5,200 tons in the first five months of the year, a 22.4 percent increase over the same period in 2001, according to U.S. Agriculture Department statistics.

"It is a perfect example of how businessman pass their problems on to the shoulders of working people," said Algirdas Sysas, a Social Democrat lawmaker and chairman of the Lithuanian Confederation of Trade Unions.

An 18 percent unemployment rate in the company's home town, Rokiskis, means it has no difficulty in imposing swinging wage cuts on workers who have nowhere else to go, said Sysas.

The company is actually weathering the dollar decline remarkably well. It posted a turnover of 166.9 million litas for the first half of 2002, up 5.6 year on year.

Rokiskio Suris officials said they hoped to boost cheese exports to the United States to about 12,000 tons this year, from 11,000 tons last year, while cheese exports by Zemaitijos Pienas are expected to reach nearly 7,000 tons, up from 4,000 tons in 2001.

Currency fluctuations are also hitting Lithuania's exports to neighboring Latvia where Lithuanian exporters are sustaining losses selling products for either dollars or lats (the lat is tied to a basket of currencies which includes the dollar, the euro and the Japanese yen).

"In some cases we hedge by sharing our risks with suppliers," said Ignas Staskevicius, chief executive of Lithuanian retail giant VP Market, which owns 30 stores in Latvia.

"We supply about one-fifth of products (in the company's stores in Latvia) from our central warehouses in Vilnius, which accounts for a 10 million euro turnover. This part is affected by the depreciation of the dollar and the lat against the litas," Staskevicius told the Verslo Zinios newspaper.

Latvia is Lithuania's fourth largest trade partner, according to data for the first five months of this year.

The picture is not all bad because the European Union remains Lithuania's main trade partner. Lithuanian companies that import gas, oil and other materials from Russia are benefiting because their contracts are in U.S. dollars.

But one group that has little to laugh about in the current economic climate is Lithuania's pensioners, whose savings are mostly in dollars.

Economists predict that up to one-third of Lithuania's 3.5 million people have maintained their savings in dollars instead of switching to euros or litas.