Commodities prices

How smart companies avoid getting burned by wild dollar swings

June 16, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

With all the recent turmoil in the global economy, you'd think the chief of any multinational would be reaching for the Pepcid AC right about now. Think again.

By Becky Quick, contributor

FORTUNE -- Currency markets get all riled up about the Greek debt default rumors -- and then rebound! There are concerns about economic declines from Great Britain to Malaysia. Then there's the chaos in commodities, which are priced in dollars -- and the real or imagined impact on money that companies make overseas. With all that turmoil, you might think the chief of any multinational company would be reaching for the Pepcid AC right about now. How the heck do you run a business with all that going on?

But what's surprising is that execs like Doug Oberhelman, the chief executive of Caterpillar (CAT), aren't fazed. "I'm old," jokes the youthful 58-year-old chieftain. In other words: He's seen it all. (He came in, after all, around when the gold standard was abandoned in 1971.) Oberhelman is calm, in large part, because Caterpillar is now a very different company, better prepared to weather currency storms. In the 1970s most of Caterpillar's production was based in the U.S.  It had just two plants in all of Asia. Today it has about 20 plants in Asia, a dozen in China alone. Almost all that production is sold where it is made, which means currency swings don't matter nearly as much to Cat's bottom line. Of course, that also means Cat doesn't ride high when the dollar is weak. "When I joined Cat, with the dollar weak like this, we would have just printed money around here," says Oberhelman.

It's a theme that's been replicated across corporate America, especially for companies that do business overseas. These businesses have moved their manufacturing plants closer to where they sell their goods, a natural hedge against wild swings in price. They are using innovative measures to reduce their reliance on any one particular commodity to keep from getting hamstrung by a sudden increase in price. And they are buckling down and following long-term game plans instead of reacting to every tick in the commodity markets.

Take PepsiCo (PEP), which spends a whopping $18 billion a year on commodities. Commodity prices have become much more volatile over the past five years, so that's why Hugh Johnston stepped up plans to centralize Pepsi's commodity purchases since taking over as the company's chief financial officer some 15 months ago. Under his playbook, roughly 80% of the company's commodity purchases are hedged, on average, for just nine months out. Those purchases are determined by headquarters a year in advance, and local managers can't deviate from those plans without specific authority from Johnston. It means Pepsi may not be able to take advantage of drops in commodity prices—but it doesn't get stung by short-term jumps. And it gives Johnston the ability to forecast what his costs will be for the bulk of the year. "To try to outthink the markets is too difficult, and it's really not the business we're in," he says.

One of the most innovative companies, Procter & Gamble (PG), is relying on good old-fashioned engineering and science to ease its reliance on some commodity markets. In fact, P&G has so much faith in its ability to innovate that it doesn't bother buying short-term hedging contracts on commodities. "The hedge is only good as long as the instrument lasts," says Jon Moeller, P&G's CFO, adding that those derivatives instruments aren't cheap to purchase either. "So if you're not dealing with it on an operational level, you're not dealing with the problem."

Instead, P&G tries to either eliminate materials from its goods—think condensed Tide detergent that comes in smaller packages—or it plays with chemistry to find substitutes for ingredients that face huge price upswings. Example: new packaging for its Pantene hair products that uses biodegradable cornstarch instead of petrochemical resins. "We can trade off without the consumer being able to notice," says Bob ­McDonald, P&G's CEO.

And all those adjustments add up. "Last year we had $2 billion in incremental commodity costs, and we saved our way out of about half of that—$1 billion—so it's the kind of stuff you have to do," says McDonald. And with savings like that, it's exactly the kind of stuff investors will applaud.

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