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Dec 23, 2009
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European firms brace for tough 2010

Dec 23, 2009

By Mark Potter

LONDON (Reuters) - Cost control is likely to remain the mantra of European companies next year, as the strength of economic recovery is tested by governments withdrawing stimulus measures to repair national balance sheets.

Prada 2009, the luxury group may follow New Look with an IPO in 2010 if the latter is successful

Europe's top 600 shares .STOXX have surged 25 percent this year, suggesting they could be vulnerable to a setback, and the strongest performing sectors -- banking, mining and retailing -- may struggle unless the recovery gathers steam.

The rise in equity markets could, however, herald a pick-up in takeovers, with banking, health and food sectors seen as potential hot-spots, as well as initial public offerings where retailers and luxury goods groups are waiting in the wings.

A Reuters poll of more than 150 economists this month found the majority expecting the world's richest nations to remain on a recovery path next year from the worst post-World War II recession.

But growth is forecast to be sluggish at just 1.2 percent in the 16-nation euro zone.

The challenge for policymakers is to withdraw unprecedented levels of fiscal and monetary support to reduce public borrowing levels and head off inflationary pressures, without putting the recovery at risk.

The task will be toughest in the banking industry, which has been on government life support machines since reckless lending brought it to the brink of collapse and sparked the downturn.


Analysts say banks could be past the peak of writing off toxic assets. But losses on home loans and consumer debts may continue to mount next year, and some say banks have yet to disclose the full scale of losses on property lending.

The withdrawal of stimulus measures will also be keenly felt in the car industry, which has benefited from subsidies on new purchases, and in mining where the flood of cash made available by governments has helped double the price of metals like copper and zinc this year.

Demand for minerals will also depend to a large extent on the readiness of China and other emerging markets to resume the massive infrastructure projects of the boom years.

This will have a bearing on the price of oil as well.

A Reuters poll last week showed analysts expecting U.S. crude to average $76.40 a barrel next year, near current levels.

That should be enough to cover the capital spending and dividend policies of most oil majors, though those planning big investments, like Spain's Repsol (REP.MC) and Italy's Eni (EN.MI), could find life tougher.


A sluggish recovery will offer little respite to energy producers, which have been hit hard by a plunge in demand and face continued oversupply as investments made during the boom years come on stream.

It may not be so bad for traditional "defensive" stocks like healthcare and consumer goods companies.

Drugmakers have had a torrid 2009 in anticipation of U.S. healthcare reforms and an end to the uncertainty may see attention shift to the steps firms are taking to cope, such as expanding in emerging markets and buying biotechnology assets.

Consumer goods stocks, meanwhile, have held their own in the equity market rally, and their mix of solid growth and generous dividends may still prove attractive in an uncertain recovery.

Other consumer-focused industries should also fare better in 2010, though they will need to rein in costs and focus on growth areas like emerging markets, the internet and new technologies if they are to add to this year's share price gains.

Media companies are not expecting an advertising recovery until the second half of 2010, while retailers and luxury goods groups are keeping inventories low for fear spending will suffer as governments hike taxes to cut their debts.

Key for some will be their ability to tap events like the soccer World Cup and new technologies like e-readers.

Renewable energy firms, meanwhile, are set to thrive as governments and businesses invest in cleaner technologies. Jefferies analysts estimate investment will rise 10 percent in Europe and 20 percent in the United States and Asia.


The recovery in equity markets could encourage a pick-up in both takeovers and flotations next year.

Britain, Germany and Ireland are among countries which will likely look at reducing stakes in banks they have rescued, while regulators have ordered banks like ING (ING.AS) and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L) to sell assets to comply with state aid rules -- though whether any of them will find buyers is another matter.

The healthcare industry could be another source of M&A as firms look to cut their risk to patent expiries, with Novartis (NOVN.VX) tipped to buy a majority stake of U.S. eyecare group Alcon (ACL.N) from Nestle (NESN.VX).

That would boost food group Nestle's warchest in a sector which may see more deals to follow U.S. group Kraft's (KFT.N) swoop on Britain's Cadbury (CBRY.L).

Analysts think Nestle may look for a deal in baby foods or nutrition, while consumers goods groups Unilever (ULVR.L) and Reckitt Benckiser (RB.L) are also favourites to strike deals.

IPOs could be on the rise as well, particularly if British fashion chain New Look makes a successful return to the stock market early next year.

Other retailers like online grocer Ocado and discount chain Poundland might follow suit, along with luxury goods companies such as Ferragamo and Prada.

(Additional reporting by Reuters European specialist reporters)

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