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How Finance Chiefs Explain Emerging-Market Risks

CFOs must communicate information about rising wages and commodity costs when investors ask about companies' investments in emerging markets.
Sarah Johnson, CFO.com | US
March 1, 2012

Last week Gary Fayard, CFO of Coca-Cola, fielded questions about the beverage giant's investment strategy in emerging markets. As with most companies that have pegged distant, underdeveloped areas as having high-growth potential, Coke is dealing with rising wages, commodity costs, and currency fluctuations in some of those locations. 

Fayard suggested the company has these issues under control. "We're analyzing and covering [our] exposures all the time," he said at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York's annual conference.  

To mitigate the risk of getting burned by swings in exchange rates, for instance, his company will transfer the money into U.S. dollars or use derivatives to hedge against hazard. Last fall, he explained, Coca-Cola hedged half of its cash in Brazil and all of its cash in Chile following movements in exchange rates related to the European debt crisis.

As companies continue to invest in emerging markets — whether in new operations, employees, or product offerings — their finance chiefs are serving as level-headed

explainers of the financial risks to the board and the chief executive officer. CFOs are also the ones deciding which metrics to use to communicate with investors, to clue them in to both the possible risks and rewards involved in a new strategy. 

Investors "need to understand what the growth potential is, but they also need to understand how we're managing volatility and risk," says Deirdre Mahlan, CFO of Diageo, a U.K.-based drinks company whose brands include Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff.

The work involves balancing shareholders' right to know significant information about a company's activities with concerns over tipping off competitors to the company's strategies. "It's a real fine line that continues to be, quite frankly, a challenge for CFOs to make sure they're at the right level of disclosure," says Diane Larsen, a partner at Ernst & Young.

Mahlan says her company communicates more often with investors when it expands its investments in emerging markets. "Two or three years ago, we would have talked about our business in a regional sense and may have referred to emerging markets" in general, she says. "Now we have much more directly and consciously called that out to our investors so that they can see the shift in our businesses in terms of the landscape and the overall composition of where our growth is coming from."

As with other consumer-goods companies, Diageo is seeing higher growth outside North America, and it continues to expand its presence in emerging markets (almost 40% of the businesses is in those regions, and it expects that number to grow to 50% in three years). Shareholders can see the shift through metrics Mahlan highlights in investor presentations. For example, earlier this month the company noted that 70% of its increase in marketing spending was made in emerging markets.

Diageo has also recently set up meetings between investors and leaders of its regional offices (such as its head of Latin America and the top leaders of its Asia group) "so that they could hear first-hand what's happening in those markets and what the potential is," Mahlan says.

Of course, companies are expected to keep investors in the loop on new risks through more formal means, such as by updating their risk factors in regulatory filings. But giving new data points in earnings calls, press releases, and presentations to investors can also give hints as to how a company's risk appetite may have shifted recently. 

Still, executives continue to hold back on spelling out exactly how their view of risk may have changed. "I don't see anyone coming out with a granular view of their risk tolerance," Larsen notes.

For some companies, specifics given publicly about expansion into new regions may be very limited. Consolidated Graphics, for example, tends to make smaller-size acquisitions of family-owned businesses that don't always rise to the level of material information. "An investment into new markets would have to be very big to get into detail," says John Biro, CFO of the U.S.-based commercial-printing company, which has a presence in Prague and Japan.




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