Long-time readers are familiar with my shtick on European stocks: many of the best plays on the rise of the emerging market consumer are to be found in boring, prosaic European blue chips. Switzerland’s Nestle ($NSRGY), the British-Dutch Unilever ($UL), and Spanish communications juggernaut Telefonica ($TEF) are all companies I’ve highlighted for their large exposure to fast-growing emerging markets. Each gets over 40% of its revenues from the developing world, and this number only continues to grow.
Emerging market growth at cut-rate European prices; what’s not to like?
Alas, not all European stocks are so globally diversified. Some are dangerously exposed to their rather weak domestic markets.
Let’s start with Italian automaker Fiat SpA ($FIATY). Fiat is not purely a European company anymore; after all, they do own the formerly All-American Chrysler. But as much as I might love the new Dodge Challenger (the Hemi engines in those are a thing of beauty), owning Chrysler is hardly something I would consider a strong positive these days and certainly nothing to counter European weakness.
The bearish case on European auto stocks is straightforward. Unless you are selling your wares to wealthy foreigners—as is the case with Germany’s Daimler ($DDAIF)—business is bleak at the moment. When the economy is in a rut and unemployment is high, families postpone the purchase of a new car for as long as they can. Not surprisingly, virtually all of Europe’s automakers that sell to the domestic market have had a horrible year.
European auto stocks have gotten battered to the point that some value investors might be looking to scoop up a few shares. There will be a time and place to do this, but I think it is more likely to be 3-6 months from now at the earliest and distinctly not today. For now, I’d consider Fiat a company to avoid.
Another company best eschewed is Swiss-Swedish infrastructure and industrial behemoth ABB Ltd. ($ABB). ABB has been a great growth story over the past decade, owing in large part to its success in China and other emerging markets. The developing world needed its electrical grid updated, and ABB was more than happy to oblige.
Unfortunately, China is slowing and restructuring its economy away from investment and into domestic consumption. And in any event, nearly 40% of the company’s orders come from Europe and Russia.
Given that ABB’s core customers are either slowing infrastructure spending or, in the case of Europe, flat-out broke, it’s hard to see where ABB can expect to find growth in the years ahead. ABB is one that I would avoid for now.
This last stock is a bit of a trick because it is not technically a European stock; in fact, it’s about as American as the tobacco it grows and sells. Yet Europe is its biggest source of profits. I’m talking, of course, about Philip Morris International ($PM).
Philip Morris International has been a phenomenal success story since its spinoff from its former parent Altria ($MO). Benefitting from a low-interest-rate environment that has benefitted dividend-paying stocks in general, PM has nearly tripled in value since hitting its early 2009 lows. Few stocks of PM’s size can boast of such a run.
Alas, Philip Morris International is now a little on the expensive side for a tobacco company. It yields only 3.4% at current prices and trades for 18 times earnings. Remember, this is a company that sells a product in terminal decline, not a growth stock with a bright future.
I love sin stocks in general and tobacco stocks in particular, but I don’t like them at any price. They have to be cheap enough and pay a high enough dividend to compensate for the lack of top-line growth. PM no longer does this; in fact, it yields less in dividends than Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) or Procter & Gamble ($PG).
And of course, there is the Europe factor. PM gets more than a third of its operating income from the European Union and roughly another quarter from Eastern Europe (the Middle East and Africa get lumped in with Eastern Europe). Add PM to the list of European stocks best avoided.
Sizemore Capital is long JNJ, PG, NSRGY, UL, and TEF