January 24, 2020

Reports Heighten Concerns About German Economy

FRANKFURT — Underwhelming earnings reports Thursday from several of Germany’s largest companies, along with a report showing a slump in confidence among European business and consumers, raised concerns that growth could be slowing even in the Continent’s strongest economies.

Siemens, the electronics and industrial conglomerate that is a bellwether for German industry, reported that net profit in the three months ending June 30 fell 65 percent to €501 million, or $716 million, worse than expected. The decline was caused partly by charges related to Siemens’s exit from a joint venture with the French nuclear technology company Areva, but also by lower demand for health care equipment and the effects of a strong euro.

Volkswagen, Europe’s largest carmaker, said that profit in the quarter more than tripled to €4.8 billion, in line with expectations, as it sold more cars both in Germany and abroad. However, the company’s preferred shares plunged 5 percent after Martin Winterkorn, the chief executive, warned that Europe’s sovereign debt crisis could hurt sales.

“The coming months will be challenging for us,” Mr. Winterkorn said.

Meanwhile, the European Union’s economic sentiment indicator fell by 2.2 points to 103.2 in the euro area, as both businesspeople and consumers became less optimistic about their prospects. The reading, the lowest in almost a year, indicates that growth is likely to continue, but at a slower pace.

“The slowdown should be temporary,” Lavinia Santovetti, an analyst at Nomura, said in a note. However, “uncertainty remains on the spillover effects from the ongoing sovereign debt crisis onto the economy directly and through confidence indirectly,” she added.

Italy and Spain showed the biggest declines in overall confidence, but a sharp fall in optimism among German exporters could be a bad omen.

A deceleration of German growth would add to the challenges Europe faces in getting the sovereign debt crisis under control.

Germany’s success in exporting cars and machinery to China and other foreign markets has helped drive growth for the Continent and compensate for economic weakness elsewhere, especially in countries like Greece, Spain and Italy that are trying to cope with excessive debt.

“All in all, this survey provides more evidence of the loss of momentum in the euro area economy in the beginning of the third quarter,” analysts at Barclays said in a note.

In another sign that the economic outlook remains tentative, the European Central Bank reported that the increase in demand for business loans slowed, while demand for consumer credit declined.

“Prospects for loan demand remain generally subdued,” the E.C.B. said in a statement Thursday.

Banks are hoarding cash while there is little activity on debt markets, said Dougald Middleton, head of capital and debt advisory at the consulting firm Ernst Young.

“What this means for corporate borrowers is that funding will be more difficult to come by and is increasingly expensive,” he said in a statement. “This will be most acute for smaller borrowers and the peripheral economies inside or outside the euro zone.”

Credit Suisse, the second-largest bank in Switzerland, continued a pattern of weak earnings from big banks this week. Credit Suisse said Thursday that it planned to cut about 2,000 jobs after a “disappointing” second quarter that saw a big drop in earnings in investment banking.

Net income fell more than expected to 768 million Swiss francs, or $958 million, in the three months ended June 30, from 1.6 billion francs in the period a year earlier.

On Tuesday UBS, Switzerland’s largest bank, said it would also have to cut jobs after profit fell by half, also largely because of poor results in investment banking.

Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest bank, said Tuesday that net profit rose 6 percent, but that was below analyst forecasts.

There was some good news, as German unemployment continued to decline on a seasonally adjusted basis. The jobless rate remained at 7 percent, according to official data.

But hiring could slow if demand for German autos and industrial technology, the two pillars of Europe’s largest economy, begins to slow.

Siemens reported that profit improved in a division that supplies products and services for industry, such as factory automation equipment. But earnings declined sharply in the division that supplies health care equipment like X-ray scanners, as well as the energy division.

Siemens said its renewable energy unit, which had been one of its fastest-growing businesses, was suffering from increased price pressure in the market for wind turbines.

While Volkswagen’s profit met expectations, some analysts expressed concern about a dip in the profit margin on cars carrying the company’s core Volkswagen badge. The company makes a host of other brands including Audi and Skoda.

Growth in China, VW’s largest market, also slowed.

“Although Audi and Skoda still shine,” Christian Aust, an analyst at UniCredit in Munich, said in a note, “the lower gross margin and margin decline at the VW brand raise some questions.”

Julia Werdigier contributed reporting from London.

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Sony Reshuffles Leadership at Video Game Unit

TOKYO — Sony said Wednesday that it would reshuffle the management of its video game unit, two months after an extensive hacker attack forced the electronics giant to shut down its popular PlayStation Network.

Kazuo Hirai, the president and chief executive of the unit, Sony Computer Entertainment, will be replaced by Andrew House, the current head of the unit’s European business, Sony said in a statement. The changes are effective Sept. 1, the company said.

Mr. House will spearhead the company’s PlayStation strategy, especially the release of the PlayStation Vita, its next-generation handheld game machine.

Vita’s release comes at a time when portable gaming devices must compete with phones and other gadgets that are luring players away with cheap, downloadable games.

Mr. House must also contend with a growing threat from hackers, who have staged a flurry of attacks on Web sites and services in recent months, including several run by Sony.

In mid-April, the company was forced to shut down its PlayStation Network, which lets users download games or play games online, after a hacker attack compromised personal information from up to 100 million accounts. After a monthlong scramble by Sony to bolster its online security, the network was restarted in most countries.

Sony has estimated that the recovery from the breach will cost about ¥14 billion, or $173 million.

Mr. House, who joined Sony in 1990, has worked in corporate communications and marketing, and worked on the introduction of Sony’s original PlayStation game console. He has headed Sony Computer Entertainment’s European unit since May 2009.

Mr. Hirai, meanwhile, is seen as a front-runner to eventually replace Sony’s chief executive, Howard Stringer, who is in his seventh year at the helm of the Tokyo-based company.

Mr. Hirai, who has been chief executive of the video game unit since December 2006, will continue to oversee the gaming business as the unit’s chairman, Sony said.

He will also retain his post as executive deputy president of the entire Sony group, where he is in charge of Sony’s many consumer electronics lines, including its Bravia TVs and CyberShot digital cameras.

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