After years in the doldrums, Europe is back.
It finally appears to have shaken off the euro zone and Greek debt crisis, mass youth unemployment, last year’s populist upswing and Brexit; and is showing some of its former swagger and confidence.
If you don’t believe that, just listen to the newly confident tone from the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Last year Mr Juncker was warning about “galloping populism” but in his State of the Union address earlier this month he grandly stated that: “The wind is back in Europe’s sails.”
The EU can deliver for its citizens when and where it matters, Mr Juncker added. “We’ve been slowly but surely gathering momentum.”
So is Europe really back, and is now the time to invest in it?
Analysts have been calling a European recovery for several years, with many spotting a contrarian opportunity after the Greek debt crisis. They noted that while EU politics were poison, there were still plenty of top European companies making juicy global profits, such as French energy companies, Swiss pharmaceuticals, Spanish telecoms and German carmakers.
Yet European stock markets continued to trail the rest of the world, with the MSCI Europe index delivering an average annual return of 8.9 per cent over the last five years, well behind the 11.7 per cent on the MSCI World index.
However, over the last year, Europe has taken the lead to rise 19.4 per cent against just 13.9 per cent for the rest of the world.
Anjulie Rusius, the investment director at M&G Investments, says Europe has delivered a string of positive surprises since the Brexit referendum shock. “Economists have perhaps been too cautious in forecasting the euro area recovery.”
The turnaround can be dated to European Central Bank president Mario Draghi’s pledge in July 2012 to do “whatever it takes” to save the single currency. What it has taken is €1.1 trillion of quantitative easing (QE) and other stimulus forced through by Mr Draghi in 2015 against the wishes of the Germans.
A sustained blast of asset purchases, negative interest rates and cheap loans have done their work, with the 19-country euro zone finally casting off its laggardly reputation to grow at an annual rate of 2.2 per cent in the second quarter of this year, beating the United States at 2.1 per cent and the United Kingdom at 1.7 per cent, according to Eurostat.
These growth figures are very exciting, by recent European standards. More impressively, the euro has performed strongly lately, rising while the US dollar and British pound sink like stones. The euro is up more than 13 per cent against the US dollar so far in 2017, leaping from US$1.05 on January 1 to trade at around $1.19, and has also strengthened against the beleaguered British pound.
Lee McDarby, the managing director, corporate foreign exchange and international payments at Moneycorp, said the euro has stormed back into favour. “The European economy has performed well recently and there has been growing talk of the ECB finally unwinding its QE programme, with the ‘bulk’ of its decisions expected in October.”
He says political risk has also faded after the populist shocks of 2016, following Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory in France, and a likely victory for Angela Merkel in Germany on September 24. “This has helped strengthen the euro across the board.”
The single currency could get a further boost if the ECB does starts tapering its €60 billion a month stimulus programme, especially since the US Federal Reserve is becoming less hawkish as the economy and inflation slow.
Kathleen Brooks, research director at City Index Direct, says the euro zone recovery is in full swing but the ECB should be cautious about tightening. “There are still some weak spots, for example Italy’s growth may have bounced back but its unemployment rate has started to rise again. The ECB needs to tread carefully to ensure it doesn’t stamp out economic recovery.”
Richard Turnill, global chief investment strategist at fund manager BlackRock, is another Europe bull. “We see sustained above-trend economic expansion and a steady earnings outlook supporting cyclical stocks.”
The European Commission is even proclaiming a “European spring”, as its research shows that 56 per cent of Europeans are now optimistic about the EU’s future, up from 50 per cent one year ago. In investing, nothing is ever certain. Some argue that European growth rates should be even faster, given the ECB’s massive stimulus.
The downside to a strong euro is that it makes it more expensive for UAE expats earning dollar-pegged dirhams to invest in the continent right now, so you have to balance that against any desire to get more exposure today.
The continent is nevertheless a tempting destination. If you are keen to invest in it, here are some of your options:
Buying individual European equities is risky and takes more time and expertise than most private investors possess. It also exposes you to single company risk. For example, German carmaker Volkswagen was a popular play on the German car industry until the diesel emissions scandal, which slashed its share price of €2.44 in October 2016 to a low of €1.02, although it has since recovered to around €1.40.
If you are still keen on individual stocks, blue chips to consider include Swiss-based food major Nestlé and pharmaceutical company Roche Holdings, while Spain boasts telecoms company Telefonica and bank Banco Santander.
France has a wealth of major companies including bank BNP Paribas, healthcare firms Sanofi, energy firms Engie and Total, and France Telecom. Germany has pharmaceutical Bayer, energy firm E.ON, Siemens and Deutsche Telekom. All of these stocks number among the top 15 companies listed on the Dow Jones EURO STOXX 50.
Many are global in nature rather than a pure play on Europe, for example Nestlé is the largest food and beverage company in the world, generating almost two thirds of its sales outside Europe.
You can invest in a spread of top European companies through a low-cost exchange traded fund (ETF) such as the iShares EURO STOXX 50 UCITS ETF, which directly invests in the 50 largest European companies, including other European companies Adidas, Allianz, AXA, Danone, L’Oreal, Nokia, BASF, Daimler, luxury goods maker LVMH and Unilever. It has delivered a total return of 64 per cent over five years, and 17 per cent over the last 12 months. Other top ETFs to consider include iShares Core MSCI Europe ETF and Vanguard FTSE Europe ETF, which are both up around 22 per cent over the last year.
ETFs passive “tracker” funds that are traded quickly and easily like stocks and shares, with no initial charges and rock bottom annual fees.
While some mutual funds charge between 0.8 per cent and 1.8 per cent a year, iShares EURO STOXX 50 UCITS ETF charges just 0.12 per cent, while iShares Core MSCI Europe ETF and Vanguard FTSE Europe both charge just 0.1 per cent. Lower charges mean you get to keep more of your investment gains.
Sam Instone, the chief executive at independent financial advisers AES International in Dubai, says investors should always be wary before hopping onto the latest investment trend, and this applies to Europe as well.
“Some say Europe has suffered a lost decade, economically speaking, and is on the cusp of rebounding, which makes now the right time to jump in and potentially make a killing. You should have exposure to Europe, certainly, but only as part of a globally-balanced portfolio.”
Mr Instone says Europe is a major part of the global economy and its equities should play an important role in all sensible investing strategies. “You need to build a properly diversified portfolio made up primarily of low-cost ETFs. Those who have done so will have European exposure already.”
AES recommend iShares MSCI Europe ex-UK UCITS ETF, which is nominated in US dollars, and a handful of actively managed funds, including BlackRock Continental European. This has put in a storming performance lately with a total return of 105 per cent over five years, and 22 per cent over the past 12 months.
Harmony Europe Diversified is a multi-manager fund of funds, which gives you wider exposure to a range of different fund managers to spread and reduce risk, and has grown 33 per cent over five years and 6 per cent over 12 months.
For those wanting to offset stock market exposure with some European bond holdings, Pictet EUR Corporate Bond has grown 27 per cent over five years, and 5 per cent over one year.
Europe is back, and not before time. This does not mean you should cram your portfolio with European stocks, but you might want to give the continent more of your attention.
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