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Hedging bets in Europe

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With NATO and Russia at loggerheads over a civil war in Ukraine, Britain facing the possible secession of Scotland, a country that represents a third of the territory of the U.K. and that would take with it perhaps 90% of British North Sea oil reserves, and with the Euro sinking on continued economic woes in the European Union, it might seem odd to think about investing client assets in Europe.

But think again, some experts say. Europe, for all its current issues, has a lot going for it -- especially some of its major constituents. Visitors to Europe from the U.S. will be impressed by the smoothly paved roads, even in frost-bedeviled countries like Norway and Sweden. Trains actually move fast and on schedule, and exports are surging, even in high-wage countries like Germany and Finland.

But despite the adoption of a single currency, the Euro, by 18 European countries, and the elimination of borders and tariffs among 28 Europeans states, Europe is not a single country composed of states like the U.S. It is an assemblage of 28 quite different economies. Just look at the performance of several key national stock markets over the last three years: England’s FTSE (up 27%), Germany’s DAX (up 74%), France’s CAC (up 47%), and the Swiss Market Index (up 62%). With those returns, simply investing in an index fund of European companies is less appealing.

Meanwhile, over the same past three years the Euro has also moved dramatically against the U.S. dollar, from .715 Euros to a dollar on Oct. 24, 2011 to a low of .821 Euros to a dollar on July 23, 2012, and a high of .720 Euros to a dollar on March 14 this year to a current low of .773.

Some global strategists, like Raymond James director of institutional research Nick Lacey , are recommending that advisors underweight Europe in their clients' portfolios. Others, like Gene Goldman, head of research at Cetera Financial, disagree. With valuations low, fundamentals improving, and the central bank planning several years of stimulus through quantitative easing, he argues advisors should at least “somewhat overweight” Europe. Even Russia looks good, he says, with the P/E for Russian firms currently at about four. Goldman isn’t too worried about a falling Euro either, which he says will help exports and in any case can be hedged.

Morningstar analyst and manager of research Patricia Oey agrees, saying one way to invest in stronger European markets and to avoid the currency risk is hedged funds. She points to Wisdom Tree’s Europe Hedged Equity Fund (HEDJ), and Deutsche X-tracker’s MSCI Europe Hedged ETF (DBEU).

Wisdom Tree’s hedged European fund is invested most heavily in Germany, with key holdings like Siemens, Daimler, Bayer and BMW, as well as U.K.’s Unilever, Spain’s Banco Santander and Belgium/Brazilian Anhauser-Busch InBev. It showed a net gain of 24% over the past year, and had an average annual gain of 10.45% over the past three years. Since inception on Dec. 31, 2009, it has shown an annual average gain of 8%.

Deutsche X-tracker’s hedged European fund, meanwhile, is 27% invested in U.K. companies, with another 43% of its holdings equally divided among stocks in France, Germany and Switzerland. It showed a hedged gain of 11.4% over the past year.

Dave Lindorff spent five years as a China correspondent for Businessweek, and has written for The Nation and Salon.com.

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