America: World's Biggest Banana Republic

"A funny thing happened on the way to dollar devaluation -- America, apparently, has become a source of cheap labor. At least in currency exchange rate terms."

It's been two and a half years since I led off a column called "America: The Low-Cost Producer" with these words. At the time, I was describing how Japanese automakers such as Nissan and Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) were building plants here to take advantage of low-cost U.S. labor. (Which, thanks to Ford (NYSE: F  ) and GM (NYSE: GM  ) , is getting cheaper all the time.)

But apparently, a trend that began with the automakers is taking on a higher profile today. Over the weekend, the CEOs of European aerospace giant EADS and its Airbus subsidiary argued a "need to question our business model." Buying plane parts in euro, then trying to sell planes in dollars, is "no longer sustainable." Archrival Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) gets to buy parts in devalued dollars, then sell its planes in euro, and doing so has helped the company generate about $4 billion in net profit so far this year. Meanwhile, poor old EADS hasn't made a euro cent so far this year. Speaking plane-ly, Europe's currency is beginning to price Airbus out of the market.

Bad news and good news
But what's bad news for Airbus may be good news for U.S. investors. In an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" move, Airbus says it will begin moving R&D activities to lower-cost, non-European locales, shifting more of its production to "dollar-zone" countries, and buying more plane parts from Stateside suppliers.

Who stands to benefit? A short list of the companies that could potentially see their business with Airbus increase might include titanium producer Allegheny Tech (NYSE: ATI  ) , cabin interiors manufacturer BE Aerospace (Nasdaq: BEAV  ) , and, of course, General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , which makes everything from hydraulic fluid level monitors to aircraft engines.

And who stands to get hurt? Any of their counterparts with names ending in "S.A." or "GmbH."


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