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BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The introduction of a single currency as an accounting unit in 11 European Union member states is less than six months away, but for risk managers, it's business as usual.
"We don't foresee any major problem. There'll be some simplification," said Anders Bjarehall, head of risk management at Azko-Nobel N.V., an Arnhem, Netherlands-based chemicals and defense electronics company.
As a Dutch company, all of its contracts, including those between the head office and foreign subsidiaries, are in Dutch guilders. As of Jan. 1, 1999, however, these will be denominated in euros.
Azko-Nobel has a captive insurer domiciled in the Netherlands and two captive reinsurers domiciled in Luxembourg. Business with the reinsurers is conducted in Luxembourg francs now. "So we will switch to the euro," Mr. Bjarehall said. Other risk managers take an equally untroubled view of the new currency.
"We manage 40 currencies now, so later we will have to manage just 30 currencies," said Thierry van Santen, head of risk management at Paris-based food and agribusiness company Groupe Danone S.A.
"The euro is not going to be an issue in the way I select a panel of insurers," said John Mayo, treasury director and risk manager at London-based electric and power systems company General Electric Co. P.L.C. "We have a number of loca l policies in Sweden and Germany for things like engineering services and employee benefits. Price transparency is the really big thing" that's going to result from the switch to a common currency, he added.
Marketing departments of many European companies, in fact, are worried about upcoming price transparency, when consumers will be able to compare prices for the same products in various European countries and ask why there is a difference,
according to Mr. van Santen. "We have to adjust some of our prices between France and Spain," he noted.
Mr. van Santen explained that another important matter for most companies operating throughout Europe is how to transfer some marginally defined prices -- such as 99/100ths of any particular currency -- into euros.
But little is expected to change for insurance buyers as the insurance industry already conducts business on an international level.
"My insurers are in New York and London, and we are already working internationally," Mr. van Santen said.
By contrast, French companies that are not multinational may find that the introduction of the euro brings more competitive rates as their domestic insurers are forced to compete on price with insurers in other E.U. countries, he said. Opinions in Europe are divided.
"We see no changes in the insurance premiums we will pay" due to the introduction of the euro, said Ingrid Prager, risk manager for Munich-based BayWa A.G., a trading and service provider to food and agribusiness that operates entirely within the German market and is insured entirely within the German market.
But Jeanette Weir, chief economist at the Assn. of British Insurers, said she believes competition on international lines will heat up with the advent of the euro. The London market has prepared for this, and Lloyd's of London, for example , will introduce the euro as a settlement currency on Jan. 1, 1999.
Ms. Weir also predicts that some international industry sectors will make the move to euros.
"Maybe some insurance currency now conducted in dollars will switch to euros. A key market is aviation," she said, pointing to the influence in Europe of aircraft manufacturer Airbus Industrie in Toulouse, France.
European multinationals have been changing their currency management within Europe for some years.
Groupe Danone has based its accounting on the European Currency Unit, which is a unit based on a basket of European currencies and is the accounting unit that the European Commission uses in budgeting.
Companies such as Swedish roller bearings manufacturer SKF A.B., based in Gothenburg, Sweden, have also based their European business accounting on a basket of European currencies. Even though Sweden is not among the first entrants to the single currency, SKF is ready to do business in euros.
"Half of our business is with Europe, so we have been preparing for this (the single currency) for years. If a customer wants to use the euro, then he will get it; we will adapt for that," said an SKF spokesman.
Most corporations in mainland Europe have been preparing for the euro for many years.
"Most of the companies in France, even the small ones, have had action plans and euro committees in place," said Mr. van Santen.
Ford Werke A.G., the Cologne subsidiary of the Ford Motor Co., has appointed a special vp and member of the company board of management, to oversee the switch to a single currency, said Dieter Heinrisch, general manager at Ford Versicherun gs Vermittlung, the automaker's captive broker in Cologne.
But risk managers have not been involved with these preparations in any big way.
"My only role has been to see that people are tackling these problems," said Mr. van Santen. The single currency, from his point of view, is an accounting and marketing problem, not a risk management concern.
Other risk managers note that they have had far more important things to worry about recently. "The privatization process in our company has come first," said Vicente Martin, risk manager at Empresa Nacional de Electricidad S.A., Spain's largest power utility, which completed the last tranche of an $8 billion privatization program in May.
Don Cuthbert, head of EMU implementation strategy at consultant Towers Perrin in London, criticized European companies that see the euro just in terms of a currency and computing systems switch, rather than as a harbinger of change in how to conduct business.
"Companies are not seeing this as a commercial issue. You will not be able to play in this market after next year (without factoring in the euro). That applies to the majority of midrange multinationals," he said.
A company should debate how to use the euro to increase its commercial advantages and its market share with both customers and suppliers, Mr. Cuthbert added.
Danone's Mr. van Santen agreed.
"I have the feeling that in the accounting side, most companies are prepared. But they are not prepared to face new competition that the euro might bring. They are not prepared to see bids with Spanish, German and Italian companies and to compete on the same market," he said.
Mr. Cuthbert added that, in Britain, the debate about the single currency has been highly politicized. Some executives believed that, because the euro was not a British invention, there was no need to think about it, while others, believin g that the change to a single currency might not happen, adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
But British risk managers disagree.
"What is the problem they (the consultants) are hunting? The euro will provide a business opportunity. We don't think we need to be complacent, but we don't think we have to seek problems," said Mr. Mayo of GEC.
GEC already has opened euro bank accounts to deal with joint ventures with European partners such as Siemens, which will conduct all of its accounting in euros.