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Once chic, the euro now fashion victim

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
Billy Leroy, owner of Billy's Antiques & Props in Manhattan, caused a media sensation when he hung his "Euro's Only" sign, as pictured here in 2008. Now the sign is down and euros are out, Leroy said.
Billy Leroy, owner of Billy's Antiques & Props in Manhattan, caused a media sensation when he hung his "Euro's Only" sign, as pictured here in 2008. Now the sign is down and euros are out, Leroy said.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The seesaw ride of the euro's value is related to its recent prestige
  • Investors bullish on the euro helped trigger the currency's swift decline
  • The swings in value are paralyzing pricing plans for businesses

(CNN) -- Two years ago, Billy's Antiques & Props on East Houston Street in Manhattan caused an international media stir when the proprietor hung a handmade sign that read: "Euros Only."

For Billy Leroy, owner of the street-side shop that harkens back to the grittier days of New York's Bowery district, the sign was both a prop and a way to reach out to European tourists who were flooding his shop when the euro was hitting $1.60 highs.

The placard was a sign of the times. In late 2007 and early 2008, business news was thick with reports that supermodel Gisele Bündchen was dumping dollars for euros in her contracts. Rapper Jay-Z in his video "Blue Magic" was seen flashing thick wads of 500-euro notes rather than greenback Benjamins. And there was wide speculation in the markets that the euro would soon eclipse the dollar as the international currency of choice

Now? The value of the euro cratered, there is real talk the currency won't survive as the monetary net under its 16-nation bloc, and the "Euros Only" sign has vanished along with the flood of European visitors at Billy's Antiques & Props.

"I don't take them anymore," Leroy said in a telephone interview with CNN.. "I cashed in all my euros when they were high. It just isn't worth it to exchange them."

What happened to "euro chic"? In many ways, the currency is now a fashion victim -- and the current seesaw ride in euro value is directly related to the prestige it once enjoyed.

The (euro) correction has been very fast precisely because investors were very long euros
--Piero Ghezzi, managing direct of Barclays Capita

Much like the credit crisis first poked holes in the perceived value of bank assets in the United States, this European stage of the crisis leaves investors wondering about the real worth of the euro. The euro was trading at $1.50 in December until the debt crisis in Greece raised questions about the fiscal sturdiness of other European Monetary Union states.

"There was this feeling that the trend of dollar depreciation and euro appreciation will continue forever," said Piero Ghezzi, managing direct and global head of currency research at Barclays Capital.

"Everyone was so bullish on the euro, even over the last year or so, the market was weakly positioned - everybody was long euros, short dollars," Ghezzi told CNN. "So the correction has been very fast precisely because investors were very long on euros."

That has had a dramatic impact on the economies united under the currency. Indeed the strength of the euro in recent years blinded the eurozone to its underlying fiscal problems, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union, told the Financial Times in an interview this week.

Even as the currency has staged a comeback this week - up from its lows of $1.19 to around $1.24 - companies that deal across the euro divide are not jumping for joy. As worrisome as depreciation is the currency's volatile swings up and down.

Businesses often price products months before delivery, and now they must speculate which way the euro will move. The wrong guess up will price products out of the market; the wrong guess down will evaporate profit margins..

"I have a client in Australia who needs to send an order, but he's waiting because he's speculating the exchange rate will drop to $1.10," said Chris Grove, who runs a business in Italy that sells custom ovens to restaurants and bars around the world.

Since the euro began to slide, Grove's business has mirrored its wild moves. "Since January there have been some months where it's difficult to get things out the door in time, and other times when I've been sitting around twiddling my thumbs," Grove said.

A couple more bad headlines and (the euro) could drop to below $1.10
--Patrick Schuleit, sales director for Dean Guitars
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U.S. businesses that sell primarily to European markets were able to ride out the recession better than most thanks to the weak dollar. "The euro got so strong American retailers were having a heyday selling in Europe and on the Internet," said Patrick Schuleit, sales director of Armadillo Enterprises in Tampa, Florida, which makes and sells Dean Guitars and other musical instruments.

Until recently, the business -- which sells in 60 markets worldwide but counts Europe as its largest market -- was doing well in eurozone. "Now I'm getting a lot of panicked phone calls from distributors in Europe," he said.

"The problem is, what are you going to use as your safety valve on the exchange rate with your distributors -- $1.25? A couple more bad headlines and it could drop to below $1.10," Schuleit said. "Some people think the euro is going to strengthen, some people think it's going to drop back down to parity with the dollar.

"People don't want to put a new price list out every month, that's the destabilizing thing," Schuleit said. "You're really writing a new piece of history seeing this kind of downward pressure on the euro."

How low will it go? No one can say for sure. Ghezzi of Barclay Capital believes that the euro "is now approaching fair value," while others predict the euro will reach the same value as the dollar.

"Sometimes we lose perspective, right? The euro is at $1.20 - it's not at 75 cents. In 2001 it was 84 cents," Ghezzi said.

"Obviously the markets are driven by greed and fear, and that means overshooting -- irrational exuberance, and irrational pessimism," Ghezzi said.