Five ways to invest in Europe – seriously

Just because there's a sovereign debt crisis doesn't mean there's no opportunity in Europe, especially if investors are selective and defensive.

By , Correspondent

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    Michael Cawley, deputy chief executive of Ryanair, poses in front of one of the Irish airline's planes in this 2010 file photo. The airline is one of a select group of stocks in Europe that could do well no matter what happens with the continent's sovereign debt crisis.
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Invest in Europe? Now!?

These days, the idea may seem as inspired as lighting a match to a paycheck. Fund investors appear to be fleeing the debt-troubled continent.

But all that tumult and fear can mask opportunities. For market-savvy investors who want to keep a hand in Europe, there are ways to play the still-economically vital region, some investors and market pros say.

Recommended: The eurozone crisis explained in 5 simple graphs

"As long as you are selective and take a two-year investment time horizon, you can find interesting investments," says Stan Pearson, head of European equities at Standard Life Investments, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. "Valuations are quite moderate, and you don't have to pay up" to buy the shares of world-class companies.

Of course, venturing into Europe with its still growing sovereign debt woes requires fortitude. Last year (through Dec. 14), bond funds targeting Europe saw net outflows of $27.7 billion, according to EPFR Global, a Cambridge, Mass., firm that tracks fund flows. European stock funds experienced $11.2 billion in outflows (minus Germany, where the outflow was more than $30 billion). So where do you invest when others are pulling out?

Here are five possible strategies:

1. Buy selected European stocks. Collectively, eurozone stock markets fell almost 20 percent in US dollar terms in 2011. That trimmed the stock prices of world-class European companies that do sizable business outside the eurozone, points out Mr. Pearson. Among those he likes: Ryanair Holdings, based in Dublin, Ireland, a provider of discount air travel; ASML, based in the Netherlands, a world leader in producing machines for making semiconductors; Saipem, headquartered in Milan, Italy, an international provider of oil and gas construction and drilling services; and CFAO, based in France, a major distributor of autos, pharmaceuticals, and other industrial products in Africa and in French overseas territories and communities.

Among the European companies he likes outside the eurozone: Denmark-based Novo Nordisk, a global health-care company.

2. Use Europe to diversify. Portfolios with a globally diversified mix of stocks and high-quality corporate bonds allow the investor or active money manager to choose when and where to invest, says Stephen Wood, chief market strategist at Russell Investments, based in Seattle. Right now, he recommends underweighting European markets versus other regions. But as concerns ebb about the European debt crisis, "disciplined investors will see opportunities in European stocks and bonds, understanding that European government bonds will be problematic for some time to come," he says.

What does underweighting mean? In a stock portfolio, investors diversifying outside the United States might put 35 percent in non-US stocks, with 40 percent of that money in Europe (an underweight), recommends Jonathan Bergman, chief investment officer of Palisades Hudson Asset Management in Scarsdale, N.Y. That works out to 14 percent of their equities holdings in Europe.

3. Invest tactically. Resolving the European debt crisis "will be a long-term process," says Alan Lancz, president of his own Toledo, Ohio, money management firm that specializes in tactical asset allocation. Along the way, markets are likely to remain choppy, affording opportunities to capitalize through shorter-term plays, he suggests. That means investors would "buy into big downturns" in attractive stocks, then take some profits when the shares rallied strongly, later buying again "into further sell-offs," says Mr. Lancz. He suggests focusing on companies with strong balance sheets and that pay attractive dividends.

4. Short the euro. Europe's rocky economic landscape could be fertile ground for selling the euro short, some experts hold. "The euro is actually being challenged and has the potential to fall farther," says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of the Money Crashers Personal Finance website, in Chicago. For instance, against the US dollar, he could see the value of the euro dropping, at worst, from a little less than $1.30 to roughly $1.00 sometime in 2012. Successfully shorting a financial instrument involves borrowing it for a period of time and selling it at a high price, then buying it back later at a lower price and repaying the lender.

How to short the euro? Establish your own positions, usually with a broker's help, or take a short position in a traded currency fund, such as the CurrencyShares Euro Trust exchange-traded fund (ETF), says Mr. Schrage, who personally trades foreign currencies.

5. Explore Europe's emerging markets. Jeffrey Notaro, chief executive officer of Vector Asset Management in New York, particularly likes the markets of Poland and Turkey. While hardly immune from economic problems, these countries benefit from infrastructure development and improved consumption from a growing middle class, he says. Moreover, investors can use ETFs to access these two stock markets, he says.

And if investors long for something more exotic, Mr. Notaro suggests buying residential real estate in the main cities of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Bulgaria – as well as farmland in Bulgaria. "Farmland anywhere is one of the few assets now in a bull market," he says. In Bulgaria, investors get the "dual opportunity of emerging markets exposure" along with a holding in the country's soil-rich, but comparatively underpriced, farm property.

How do you buy land in places like the Czech Republic or Bulgaria? One way is through a competent local adviser who can provide the necessary direct-investment services, says Notaro, who also heads two New York City-based companies focused on Bulgarian real estate and farmland investing. These companies help locate and arrange the Bulgarian land purchases, which the firms then manage from a local office.

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