Strong Dollar Batters Earnings for U.S. Tech Firms


Many multinationals have suffered from the impact of a strong dollar, but few as severely as U.S. technology companies. There is little sign the pain will ease soon.

Currency headwinds for more than a year have dogged the biggest names in the sector—including Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp.—and once again loomed large in the current quarterly earnings season. The problem, which is increasingly defying traditional solutions, is also expected to weigh down the numbers expected Monday from Google’s parent Alphabet Inc.

Silicon Valley is suffering disproportionately because of its unusual success in hawking hardware, software and services abroad. S&P Dow Jones Indices estimates that U.S. information technology companies generated 59% of sales overseas in 2014, the latest annual numbers available, compared with 48% for companies in the broader S&P 500 index.

“I would expect the technology sector to continue to be the most affected of any sector,” said Howard Silverblatt, an S&P Dow Jones analyst. “These companies have enormous presence abroad.”

Currency headaches are becoming more pronounced as tech companies run into economic weakness and other issues that are slowing demand for their products.

Apple provided a striking example last week. The consumer electronics company, which gets 66% of its revenue from outside the U.S., said last week that the strong dollar had cost it nearly $5 billion in revenue in the quarter ended in December. Apple, if currency moves were excluded, said it would have generated $80.8 billion in revenue in the most recent quarter versus its reported $75.9 billion, knocking an 8% increase down to 2%.

Besides taking customary hedging actions to counter the dollar’s rise, the company said it had been forced to protect its profit margins by raising prices on products like iPhones in Russia, Brazil and Turkey and other countries.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said extreme measures were necessary given the unprecedented scope of an issue that ordinarily affects a few countries at once. This time, he said in an interview, the dollar is “incredibly strong nearly everywhere.”

Since September 2014, Apple estimated, the Russian ruble’s value has fallen more than 50% and the Brazilian real more than 40%, while Canadian and Australian dollars, Mexican peso and Turkish lira are all down by 20% or more. What was $100 in overseas revenue for Apple in September 2014 translated to $85 in December 2015, the company estimated.

“When the currencies move to that degree for that period of time, it’s meaningful to us,” said Mr. Cook, who told analysts that the combination of currency shifts and slowing economies has caused a “melee in virtually every country in the world.”

Other tech companies also blamed currency woes for suboptimal results in their most recent quarter. Microsoft reported last week that the strong dollar had reduced its revenue by about $1.9 billion in the period ended in December. IBM put the fourth-quarter impact of currency translation at about $1.5 billion. Software maker Oracle Corp. in December said exchange rates reduced revenue by about $540 million in the quarter ended in November.

Most of these companies generate enough profit to counter currency shifts, which hurt mainly when proceeds from goods sold in foreign currencies were translated into dollars. But equally serious repercussions can follow when the strong dollar makes it more expensive to buy U.S. goods. In such cases, potential purchasers may hold off buying or try to find alternatives, analysts say.

Market researcher Gartner Inc. estimated that the U.S. dollar’s rise took $217 billion from global information technology spending in 2015, a bigger effect than the 2009 financial crisis.

The latest shifts have created winners as well as losers. Inc.’s cloud service, for example, uses dollars for purposes like constructing data centers overseas, and it cited financial benefits in its fourth quarter. Meanwhile, tech vendors from other countries—including the big German software vendor SAP SE—have seen a financial tailwind as they get higher-valued dollars in exchange for their products.

But most U.S. companies are talking about the downside of the dollar. More such commentary may come Monday from Alphabet, whose flagship Google unit and other businesses derived about 53% of revenue from abroad in the quarter ending in September. The company estimated the negative impact of currency rates at $1.3 billion in that period, following hits of $1.1 billion in both the first and second quarters.

Ruth Porat, Alphabet’s chief financial officer, mentioned currency headwinds five times during the third quarter’s conference call with analysts. In the fourth-quarter results due out Monday, analysts from Raymond James & Associates expect U.S. dollar gains to trim revenue by about $900 million, excluding any hedging benefits.

Compounding the problem is the increasing difficulty of making effective hedging moves, which include forward contracts or options to buy or sell foreign currencies. Companies in many cases have failed to make hedging moves that match the magnitude of the dollar’s rise, or haven’t hedged in enough of the currencies that fell in relation to the U.S. currency.

“The techniques didn’t work, because the drop was so fast and so widespread,” said John Lovelock, a Gartner analyst.

Alphabet, for example, said in October its hedging moves only reduced negative currency impacts by $300 million in the third quarter. IBM has run into the same issue. Martin Schroeter, IBM’s chief financial officer, estimated that currency translation would hurt pretax profit in 2016 by $1.3 billion—with nearly three-quarters of that reduction coming from reduced gains from hedging.

For the current quarter ending in March, Apple said it expects currency issues to decrease revenue by 4%. The company, which didn’t quantify the impact of its hedging activity in the quarter ended in December, said it plans to continue placing hedges to counter the dollar’s rise. It also hopes to get some money back from suppliers.

Apple pays many of those foreign firms in U.S. currency, which means they have benefited from the dollar’s strength. The company said it plans to take that factor into account as it tries to negotiate new supply deals with more favorable terms.

Costs associated with forward currency contracts can go up based on differences in interest rates among countries, while currency option prices rise in proportion to pricing volatility, said Wolfgang Koester, chief executive of FiREapps, a company that provides currency-analysis services to companies. Despite the complexities, Mr. Koester said that Google and others have developed sophisticated tools that should be up to the hedging task.

“It is very manageable, if you do it right,” he said.

Don Clark, Daisuke Wakabayashi, Alistair Barr

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