March 7, 2021

Fundamentally: Avoid Europe? It’s Not Easy to Do

The answer is far from simple, market strategists say.

For starters, Europe is hard to avoid — stocks there account for around a quarter of the world’s total market capitalization. Moreover, investors who are thinking of shifting money out of the region don’t have many attractive alternatives in the global markets, money managers say.

Japan’s economy, for one, is expected to contract this year in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of the country, according to a report this month by the International Monetary Fund. Central banks in many fast-growing emerging markets like China and Brazil, meanwhile, have started to increase interest rates to tame inflation overseas, which have led to losses in their stock markets.

At the same time, European stocks have held up remarkably well despite the debt crisis and expectations that gross domestic product in the euro zone will grow at an annual rate of less than 2 percent from now to 2014.

So far this year, the Morgan Stanley Capital International Europe index has returned around 6 percent, outpacing the 4 percent total return of the Standard Poor’s 500 index of domestic shares.

To be sure, much of that gain is a product of a surprisingly resilient euro, which is up nearly 8 percent against the dollar since the beginning of the year. But even after the currency effect is stripped out, European stocks have still lost only about 1 percent for the year in total returns.

“I would have guessed, given all the economic problems over there, that the European stock market would have run into more trouble,” said Robert C. Doll, chief equity strategist at BlackRock, the investment manager.

If individual investors are considering reducing their exposure to Europe, they should first weigh making smaller moves that can reduce risk without upsetting their overall asset allocation plans, strategists say.

“Our take is that you have to have money in Europe,” said Lewis J. Altfest, chief investment officer at Altfest Personal Wealth Management, “but you can focus on certain areas of Europe that are healthier.”

Mr. Altfest noted, for instance, that Germany’s economy has been stronger than most, and that it has avoided the debt worries plaguing nations like Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

What’s more, he said German companies might actually benefit from the crisis if fear of potential defaults by such countries leads to a weaker currency. “A cheaper euro means a more competitive Germany when it comes to trade outside of Europe,” he said, noting that a falling currency would make German exports cheaper for foreign customers.

Mr. Altfest said investors could move a small portion of their holdings in a broad-based European stock fund to a fund that tracks only the German market. The iShares MSCI Germany Index fund, for instance, has returned nearly 10 percent so far this year, based in dollars.

Alec Young, international equity strategist at S. P. Equity Research, has been recommending a “surgical approach” to European exposure. He said, for instance, that investors should avoid bank shares.

About 23 percent of Europe’s market capitalization is in financial stocks — a sector whose companies own European sovereign debt and are thus vulnerable in the event of defaults. Shares of Banco Popolare of Italy and Commerzbank of Germany, for example, have lost about half their value this year.

But investors can reduce their exposure to European financials by turning to professionally managed mutual funds that underweight the sector relative to the broad market, he said.

Mr. Young also recommends an emphasis on dividend-paying European stocks, because it’s unclear whether American investors can keep counting on a currency boost on their investments. Without that boost, he said, European stock returns may be flat, so having a dividend strategy could provide some gains.

FINALLY, focusing on shares of high-quality multinational companies could offer an added level of safety for European portfolios, said Charles de Vaulx, a portfolio manager at International Value Advisers.

Mr. de Vaulx says he hasn’t had to trim his portfolio’s European stake because so many of his holdings are globally oriented companies whose growth is tied to consumers outside the region.

“Many stocks in Europe have little do with Greece,” he said.

For example, the British spirit maker Diageo, whose brands include Guinness and Johnnie Walker, sells products in about 180 countries. And the food and beverage giant Nestlé, based in Switzerland, generates nearly 40 percent of its sales from emerging markets.

Simon Hallett, chief investment officer at Harding Loevner, an asset management firm, agrees with this approach. “We tend to own companies in Europe that are very multinational and that aren’t reliant on their domestic markets,” he said.

As a result, he said, “we don’t think it makes any sense to change our strategy.”

Paul J. Lim is a senior editor at Money magazine. E-mail:

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