An outright military clash between the U.S. and Russia may be off the table for now, but the risk of economic sanctions and even asset seizures poses a threat to major consumer companies from Ford to PepsiCo.
The U.S. and some European countries have raised the possibility of levying economic sanctions against Russia if it doesn't back down in the standoff over Ukraine. In response, Russian parliament member Andrei Klishas has suggested the country could pass a law giving the government the power to take control of Western assets within its borders.
Such measures no doubt sound extreme and unlikely based on Russia's prior track record. Chris Osborne, CEO of Russian investment bank Troika Dialog's U.S. division, told CNBC that the government has generally taken a hands-off approach to privately owned consumer products companies in Russia.
But Adidas AG CEO Herbert Hainer said Wednesday that the German sportswear company "cannot ignore the significant weakness of the Russian ruble … as well as the current uncertainty in the region, both of which have had a considerable risk to our results." While the company said it had not seen any impact from the political situation so far in 2014, it added it was reviewing previous plans to open new stores in the country.
Brand-name consumer companies have a great deal at stake in Russia, which has attracted them because of its long-term economic prospects and growing middle class.
Most of the focus in recent days has been on energy companies, like London-listed BP PLC, which owns a large stake in government-controlled Rosneft. BP has suffered paper losses in recent days as shares of the Moscow-listed state oil company fell.
Even so, brand-name consumer companies also have a great deal at stake in Russia, which has attracted them because of its long-term economic prospects and growing middle class. With few acquisition targets in other emerging markets, some companies have made big bets there in an effort to keep up with peers.
Denmark’s Carlsberg doubled down on the Russian market in 2008 when it bought the 50 percent of Baltic Beverage Holdings it didn't already own through its acquisition of Scottish & Newcastle. In its most recent report, Carlsberg said it has a 39 percent share of the Russian beer market. The company's Eastern Europe division, which is mainly Russia, accounts for more than 40 percent of the company's operating profit.
Regulations in Russia have already caused headaches for Carlsberg. Not long after Carlsberg got the full stake in Baltic Beverage Holdings, the government raised taxes on beer and later prohibited sales in outdoor kiosks where many Russians frequently bought the beverage. Sales in Russia continue to drag as the company copes with the laws, and Carlsberg has said laws and regulations in Eastern Europe are a strategic risk for 2014. Carlsberg didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Coca-Cola's European bottler Coca-Cola HBC, which recently moved its primary listing to London from Athens, also depends heavily on Russia. In a recent investor note, BofA Merrill Lynch estimated that Russia contributed 18 percent of total company sales in 2013.
Even if sanctions never materialize, Coca-Cola HBC is still exposed to a weaker Russian ruble, which has probably hurt its shares already in 2014 as the currency declined. Coca-Cola HBC shares have fallen 14 percent this year, while London's FTSE 100 has been flat. A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola HBC didn't respond to a phone call seeking comment.
U.S. companies have also made sizable wagers in Russia. In 2010, PepsiCo agreed to buy Russian dairy and juice manufacturer Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods for over $5 billion, or about 16 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amoritization. The deal was seen as a way to boost the company's revenue growth, which had slowed as PepsiCo's mainstay U.S. market matured.
Today, Russia accounts for about 7 percent of PepsiCo's total revenue. PepsiCo declined to comment.
What's more, rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine has automakers reassessing their operations in Russia and the potential impact on sales in Europe. "There is not a single doubt in my mind that if the situation in Russia and Ukraine remains as tight as it is or if it worsens from where we are that it will dampen demand in Western Europe," said Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and Chrysler.
Marchionne made his comments while attending the Geneva Motor Show.
Over the last two decades automakers have invested billions in Russia, often by partnering with local companies. That investment has been fueled by the rapidly growing Russia auto market. That country has passed Great Britain to become the seventh largest auto market in the world in 2013 with the sale of 2.78 million vehicles
"Our view is that it will become the largest European market in the next 2-3 years; now that may change a little bit depending upon the economy," said Mark Fields, chief operating officer of Ford. "It's important that we be there to serve our Russian customers and as I have said we will monitor the situation and take appropriate actions."
Ford has two plants in Russia, as does General Motors. Meanwhile, Renault/Nissan and Hyundai also have large operations in Russia.
Companies may already be trying to prevent governments in the U.S. and Europe from imposing sanctions on Russia that put their businesses at risk. "Russia is a very profitable market," Osborne said. "I imagine they … will be lobbying furiously to avoid this."
First published March 5 2014, 12:58 PM