Germans Up in Arms 

11/05/2009 4:15 pm EST


Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

What's good for General Motors is definitely nicht zu gut for Germany these days. Never before have so many Germans been so mad about Americans squatting on their turf instead of Russians. But then the bankrupt US auto maker took seemingly forever to shop its European Opel subsidiary before deciding it would keep it after all—and make much deeper cuts than contemplated by the spurned buyers from Canada's Magna (NYSE: MGA , TSX: MG-A) and Russia's Sberbank. 

"Completely unacceptable," huffed Germany's economy minister, a member of the nominally laissez-faire Free Democrats. "The ugly face of turbo-capitalism," chimed in a regional premier and deputy leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party. Opel workers planned work stoppages to protest the GM board's last-second U-turn, which will protect Opel's technology and distribution network from outsiders, at the likely expense of many more jobs than Magna and Sberbank would have axed. Instead of supplying the $6.7 billion in additional aid it had promised Opel, the infuriated German government may demand the return of its prior $2.2 billion loan.

Jobs are now the most precious currency in the West, as companies continue to shed expensive home-country staff in favor of cheaper help in faster-growing markets. Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS) is hiring not in Orlando or Anaheim but in Shanghai . The game's even easier for techs like IBM (NYSE: IBM).

The wage gap should narrow over time, but hardly soon enough to avert another jobless recovery. This is why the Federal Reserve, which is legally bound to promote employment, plans to keep interest rates "exceptionally low" for "an extended period." One way to shrink the pay gap faster while propping up domestic manufacturing is to make the dollar cheaper. 

This helps explain why the stock market cares less and less about the performance of the US economy, as distinct from the global one. In many important ways, the listed firms no longer "live" here. Exports account for an ever-rising share of their earnings. Most are sitting on piles of cash and stealing market share from the cash-strapped and credit-starved small businesses.

Their strength contrasts with the difficulties of many Japanese and European multinationals as the weaker dollar saps sales and profits. Toyota (NYSE: TM) managed a surprise profit, but can no longer afford Formula 1. NokiaSiemens can't afford thousands of its workers.

On the other hand, the weaker dollar isn't such a threat to the big oil companies, which figure to see the value of their output and reserves rise as the greenback sags. In this week's Global Perspectives excerpt, Paul Larson of Morningstar StockInvestor makes the case for BP (NYSE: BP , LSE: BP), Suncor Energy (NYSE: SU, TSX: SU) and StatoilHydro (NYSE: STO ).

The weakening dollar also matters little to companies that don't export much, and therefore do business in the generally appreciating currencies of the generally faster-growing foreign markets. In this week's Q&A, fund manager Brad Radin discusses the merits of a Hong Kong bank and a back-to-basics Australian store chain. Meanwhile, Paul Goodwin recommends a Brazilian retailer. Ryan Irvine introduces a Toronto-traded fund with an 8% dividend yield, backed by trading outposts in frontier locales not afflicted by cutthroat competition.

None of these smaller companies will have much at stake when the US tallies job losses for the latest month on Friday. And none of them will suffer because the US Treasury is running up its debt. Brazilians, Australians, and Aleutians alike will need socks, underwear, and groceries regardless.

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