US recovery sends hopeful signals to markets abroad
Boston — Robert Stephens's investment world covers half the globe - the half outside North America. ''In terms of market capitalization, the world is about 50 percent North American,'' he says. So, Mr. Stephens, vice-president of the Kemper International Fund Inc., can invest anywhere else he likes.
Lately, the Glasgow-based mutual fund manager has found companies he likes in Sweden, Holland, France, and Japan. Sometimes, however, finding these companies can be a challenge. While the US stock markets have been hogging center stage with their skyrocketing price increases, ''the rest of the world has been a tough place to make money,'' he said in an interview during a recent stop in Boston.
Still, he contends, there are several specific companies in Europe and the Far East that are either undervalued or promising to play key roles in the development of emerging industries, including telecommunications and genetics.
''My job is to see where we can find value, high earnings growth, wherever that may be,'' he said. He cites Sweden as a good example. Because of its socialist government, ''the Swedish economy is not one that you would normally feel very enthusiastic about, but there are some very interesting stocks that happen to be quoted on the Swedish stock market.''
One such company is L.M. Ericsson Telephone, a telecommunications company that competes in some world markets with Canada's Northern Telecom. Another is A.B. Cardo, a producer of sugar-beet seedlings which has moved into genetics and has developed several proprietary genetic-enhancement methods that could be used in agriculture.
Recently, Mr. Stephens notes, stocks in Sweden and other foreign markets have shown improved prospects because of changes for the better in North America.
One of the most important changes is in the US dollar. After two years of gaining in strength against almost every foreign currency, the dollar is showing signs of weakness that should help the stocks in Mr. Stephens's portfolio.
''There are people who wonder if it is ever going to get unwound, if the overvaluation of the dollar is ever going to end,'' he observed. ''I happen to be totally convinced that it is. I really don't think there is any alternative. The easing process that started in August and September is going to continue - gently - through 1983.''
The only thing standing in the way of that easing, he notes, is the possibility that a big US deficit will push up credit demand and bring back high interest rates.
''That is the absolute core of the problem,'' he says.
It's also the reason he is hedging against the possibility of a ''reawakening of inflation'' by making small investments in gold and natural-resource stocks. ''It's difficult to believe that the rate of improvement that the US has had in inflation is going to persist.''
A new direction in national politics may not always continue either. In France, for example, Mr. Stephens detects a growing weariness with the socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand. A switch in public support like this can also present some investment opportunities.
''I was in France a few weeks ago, including provincial France,'' he recalls. ''Everybody I spoke to, from taxi drivers on, said, 'I think we've had enough of this experiment.' ''
Believing that this attitude will persist and that the Mitterrand government will moderate some of its policies toward business, Mr. Stephens has increased his investments in France.
Another area where he thinks political considerations can mean investment opportunity is Hong Kong, despite concerns about how China and Britain will work out ultimate control of that territory.
Kemper is low in investments in Hong Kong, he says. ''But if there is a world economic recovery, the lease problem - which is simply a diplomatic words problem, really - will go away. And the inherent dynamism of that country will get going.''
Mr. Stephens's heaviest investments by far are in Japan, where he has put over 30 percent of Kemper's international portfolio. Again, the emphasis is on telecommunications and high technology. There are also investments in housing, retailing, clothing, and restaurants. The closest he gets to an automobile investment is Fujitsu, which makes electronic circuitry for Japanese cars.
Finally, while much of the world has been shying away from oil and natural resources, Mr. Stephens has been building some positions in Australian stocks in these areas. One reason is to build a hedge against inflation; another reason is stability.
''Oil exploration stocks aren't terribly fashionable at the moment,'' he acknowledges. ''But (Australia) is, relatively speaking, a politically stable area. And that has value. The fact that it's coming out of the ground in a relatively stable part of the world could have significant impact on the Australian Stock Exchange.''
Oil stocks did become more fashionable last week, notes Ellen McCready, oil analyst at First Boston Corporation. The reason: For the first time in months the oil-producing nations appeared close to an agreement leading to stable prices. At their meeting in London, where the OPEC nations were joined by Mexico , Britain, and Norway, slow progress was being made toward an agreement, Ms. McCready stated.
''They are just being careful,'' she said of the pace of negotiations she believes will lead to a unified price of $30 a barrel.
This prospect for stability helped push up the oil stocks in the latter part of the week. Among the stocks that made it to the firm's recommended list were Royal Dutch Shell, Socal, and Mobil.
The stock market found a lot to like in the economy, and kept setting records last week. With housing starts and leading economic indicators going up, interest rates going down, and unemployment holding steady, the Dow Jones industrial average climbed to 1,140.96, up 20.02 for the week.