Shaping a portfolio for 2013 (iv): Europe

 The Eurozone, which comprises most of the EU, is in recession.  Not only that, but it’s suffering a crisis of trust that threatens to tear it apart.  But you wouldn’t know it from the recent performance of EU stock markets.ward

a quick look back

In over-simple terms, the Eurozone was formed solely as a monetary union, without any fiscal checks and balances.  It was like a partnership where everyone got to use the common credit card.   On the tacit assumption that gentlemen always pay their debts, the EZ never checked to see if users could, or did, pay their bills–even though the group as a whole was responsible for any charges.  The chief lenders were government-controlled banks run by bureaucrats with no notion of how to analyze creditworthiness or detect fraud.  If all else failed, the “parent,” Germany, would presumably pick up the tab.

Not a great real-world concept.

The fantasy balloon was popped in October 2009 when a newly-installed government in Athens discovered the previous administration had been faking the national balance sheets and income statements for many years.  Greece was broke, much more heavily in debt than it had previously revealed, unable to repay.  The new guys made the bad news public, but have been unwilling (my view) to do much, other than ask for debt forgiveness, to remedy the situation.

Members have been fighting about how to proceed since then.  Until very recently, no one has been willing to lend to economically weak nations like Italy and Spain, forcing them into crisis.

Pretty awful stuff.

2012 stock market performance

Last year, the S&P 500 was up by a stellar 13%+,  on a capital changes basis.  Despite the ugly picture I painted above, EU stocks outperformed the US by about five percentage points last year, in dollar terms.  That’s the result of a huge rally since July.  EU stocks, which I pointed out back then were yielding 5.5%, still have a 200 basis point yield preference over the S&P–meaning holders made close to eight percentage points more than the S&P on a total return basis.

A dollar-based investor who bought in late July (something I would have thought to be too risky for just about everyone) would have made over a third on his money in five months.


Some people talk about a four-stage process in problem solving:

Stage 1:  deny the problem exists

Stage 2:  blame someone else

Stage 3:  blame yourself

Stage 4:  begin to fix the problem.

I think the Eurozone reached Stage 4 last July   …and the markets picked up on this very quickly.

where to from here?

I read the positive market reaction so far as being basically an anticipatory rally, in the expectation of change that’s yet to come.  In other words, I think it’s far from a sure thing that the parties involved have the political will to create the closer fiscal union that is needed.

still, some positives

a 4%+ dividend yield indicates there is still considerable skepticism still in the markets–implying further upside for stocks if good news continues to flow from Brussels and Berlin

–it’s now much less probable that the EU will come apart at the seams (if anything, there’s likely only to be a slow unraveling)

–the end of the scorched-earth “austerity” policy and its replacement with a more accommodative monetary regime means eps growth in 2013 might surprise skeptics on the upside.  For what it’s worth, the OECD is projecting that Europe as a whole will begin to see (admittedly meager) positive year on year comparisons in the second half.

my bottom line

An EU that’s at least not falling apart and where overall GDP is stable or better is a plus for the rest of the world.

Any value investor, I’m sure, will have a field day poring over the financials of the many companies that are trading at under net equity value–the risk, of course, being that there may be legal and cultural barriers to asset value ever being realized.

But there are better places in the world to invest, to my mind, for the moment at least.  If I were forced to have actively managed money in Europe, I’d certainly be significantly underweight.  I’d be emphasizing Germany, Scandinavia and the UK.  I’d also be trying to find well-managed companies with unique products/services, especially ones with the ability to sell outside the EU.

Since I’m not compelled to be in Europe, I’m content await further political developments and to hold only a few names, concentrating on firms listed in the EU but doing most of their business elsewhere.  Personally, I own small positions in a couple of Vanguard Europe funds, plus IHG.  I’d be happy to add a couple more individual stocks, once I have time to do the research.

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