To push a tanker off-course takes more than a gentle breeze. Shampoo–to–pet food conglomerate Procter & Gamble, gave a nod to the stormy economic winds yesterday as first-quarter numbers were released, but accepted only the merest widening of targets for the year ahead. While the reporting season has been characterised by companies unable to predict the near-future, P&G cut the lower end of its profits guidance by less than 1 per cent. The group forecasts to produce earnings per share somewhere between $4.15 and $4.25 next summer.

Yet in spite of barely a raised eyebrow on the bridge – Clayt Daley, chief financial officer, feels sufficiently sanguine to be retiring at 56 – every sinew must be straining below decks. Input prices have fallen dramatically in recent months, but the time lag before the benefit is felt by manufacturers means P&G still faces a $2.7bn cost headwind this year. Currency volatility also makes life difficult – from boosting sales, P&G now expects foreign exchange effects to take 1-2 percentage points off top-line growth this year.

At the same time consumers are “de-loading the pantry”, running down stocks of items such as batteries or razors, and waiting longer to buy replacements. (And there is no need to shave every day if you are not going to work.) A widening price gap between P&G’s premium products and private label goods has also prompted greater trading down. How consumption patterns in emerging markets will change as rates of growth slow also remains unknown.

The group is a master cost-cutter. Stripping out expenses related to selling, overheads and administration, moderated most of the hit to margins from commodities in the first quarter. Big, solid and diversified, P&G should chug safely on. But it is a mark of how tough times have become that few others will be able to follow in its wake.

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