“We’re experiencing the beginning of the repercussions of the financial crisis,” said Michel-Edouard Leclerc on Wednesday during an interview on Europe 1, France’s largest radio network. He is the CEO of the second largest retailer in France, E. Leclerc, a privately owned cooperative association with 555 stores—mostly hypermarkets—in France and 117 stores in other countries.
Sounding like a CEO one minute and like a populist presidential candidate the next, he emphasized that his company has done relatively well in 2011, sales being up 5%. Strategy: offer deals and cut prices. The whole industry, he said, “ate up inflation” with their margins, but his stores were particularly aggressive as shoppers have become less spontaneous and much more concerned about price. In his 30 years in the industry, he has never seen so much “rational behavior among consumers” and so much “fear of getting screwed.”
Until now, the financial crisis of 2008 has touched mostly the financial world, he said, but in 2012, it would impact the real economy. “I’m very worried,” he said. All the “stupidities” going on before the financial crisis, the speculative building bubble in the suburbs of Madrid or in Florida, or the “Madoffs” all over the place, there was so much waste, but… “It’s always the people who end up paying.”
How? “Higher VAT, higher taxes on drinks, on garbage collection, all that will go up. And then there is inflation. This year, we haven’t seen too much of it, but it’s still about 3%.” Yet salary increases haven’t kept up with it, so it hit household purchasing power.
“Inflation in 2012 is arriving ominously,” he said. “Suppliers, who couldn’t pass on their price increases because we opposed them, are coming back to us” and demand higher prices because their costs have gone up, in some cases by 20%.
“Companies have been bled dry,” he said. “Banks are making them pay more for their loans. Price pressures have built up in the supply chain. And everybody will try to unload price increases on the French.” The loss of purchasing power would be a major threat in 2012 and could push consumer spending into a recession, he said.
And what would he tell the next government after the election in May? “Stop listening to this financial world, these ratings agencies.” The government has to keep control of its strategy, he said. “According to the ratings agencies, it would be necessary to put France on a diet. But if there is no growth, we’ll never be able to pay back our debt.”
“We have to shoot all these guys that come to give us lessons,” he said. “I believe that’s the real combat of our society. We, the actors in the real economy, must regroup so that we won’t be eaten up by these guys.”
“It wasn’t the Italians that threw out Berlusconi, it was the ratings agencies. That’s not normal. And it’s not normal either that Monti was ‘non-elected’ by the ratings agencies. We have to master our own destiny once again. That’s the job of all of us.”
On the other side of the Rhine, the solution to the crisis is focused on reducing debt and repairing budgets—the dictate of M. Leclerc’s beloved ratings agencies. Amidst these tensions, Beatrice Weder di Mauro, member of Germany’s Sachverständigenrat—a council of economic experts for the government—was asked if the euro would break apart in 2012. “That would be bad for all involved,” she said, “but it cannot be excluded.”
Oops. And in Germany, companies are getting ready for the end of the euro. Theoretical exercises for a hypothetical scenario, they call it. The latest was Herbert Hainer, CEO of Adidas, second largest sportswear maker in the world. Adidas, he said, “will be prepared to go back to local currencies if necessary.” But now the public is told to prepare for the demise of the euro, too….
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