The Asia crisis has begun to infect Europe: marble quarries in Northern Italy, raw-cotton vendors in Germany and cognac dis-tillers in France are watching their markets half a world away wither or disappear.
Although Europe remains on an upward tick and does far more commerce within its own borders than anywhere else, Asia's troubles have so many tentacles that many here are braced for a worsening economic picture.There is particular fear about a flood of Asian products newly cheapened by the collapse in that region's currency values - cut-rate, cutthroat competition for home-grown companies and workers.
"I'm worried because we haven't yet felt the shock wave from the Asia crisis," said Paolo Fresco, president of the Italian automaker Fiat, which competes with Japanese and Korean imports.
Meanwhile, Italian fashion designers, purveyors of such trendy status symbols as Ferragamo shoes and Prada handbags to the nouveaux riches of Bangkok, Thailand, and Hong Kong, have lost $570 million in export sales, the trade federation Federtessile says.
For French distillers, the Japanese and Southeast Asian market, the No. 1 consumer of the priciest cognacs 15 years old and older, has collapsed, dropping 23.7 percent in a single year. Lost sales of more than $165 million are forecast in 1998.
"The Charente (cognac-producing region) wine industry is a disaster zone, like textiles or steel," Philippe Sabouraud, member of a grape growers association, said.
And last month, Bouygues S.A., a French construction company, stopped building a giant railway station in Kuala Lumpur when the Malaysians stopped paying. Asea Brown Boveri, the Swedish-Swiss engineering giant, has said Asia's woes may cost it $550 million in lost or canceled orders.
European banks' exposure in Asia is almost five times that of their warier U.S. competitors: a total of $179.5 billion in loans at the end of 1997, according to Jerome Booth, head of research of ANZ International Bank in London.
So, if the Asians don't make good on their IOUs, it's essentially the bankers in Frankfurt, Paris, London and other Old World financial capitals who must take what in banking circles jocularly is known as a "haircut."
In the main, the Asian crisis so far has been much worse for America than for Europe. That's because Asia absorbs about one-third of all U.S. products sent overseas, but less than 10 percent of what the 15 nations of the European Union export.
The back-of-the-envelope arithmetic looks like this: Asia's troubles have been graver than originally predicted. But a continuing domestic rally in Europe, and increased demand in the United States and other areas of the world, have been stronger than forecast.
The net result, at the moment, is roughly a wash.
But there's a silver lining to Asia's gloom: The price of raw materials that most European nations must import has been kept low because of reduced Asian demand, with crude oil now cheapest in 12 years. Interest rates also have hit bottom. Both factors have given domestic European demand a boost.