It might surprise you that in the late 1990s, emerging-market stocks were a tough sell to American investors. After years of chronic underperformance against then-popular growth stocks like Microsoft (MSFT),
As returns improved in the decade that followed, that all changed and emerging-market funds came to dominate investors' attention. As recently as the first quarter, emerging-market inflows accounted for over 20% of mutual funds' new assets.
A similar story may be playing out in Europe, which for many investors has become a dirty word. Despite the Continent's stagnant economy and unemployment rate above 10%, now might be the time to consider investing there. Indeed, for those investors with a tolerance for risk and patience beyond the next nightmarish news report, many of the region's most trouble locales might offer a profit opportunity.
One possible approach: Given the worldwide relative strength of telecom stalwarts like AT&T (T)
Telecom Italia (TI)
Spain's economy is among Europe's worst, with unemployment near 25% and the country's benchmark IBEX stock index down 20% this year. Bearing the brunt of that weakness has been shares of Telefonia S.A. (TEF),
After having fallen roughly 50% over the past 12 months, the U.S.-listed ADR is now trading at 2003 levels. First-quarter results were weak, with revenue falling 4% compared to the previous quarter. The company is now in the process of deleveraging to raise cash by selling assets in Germany, China and Latin America.
Yet amid the negative headlines, the stock has recently bounced, moving above its 50-day-moving average of $12.24 with many investors likely attracted to the 10% dividend and below-market price-to-earnings ratio. If the worldwide strength in telecom stocks persists, shares of Telefonia could jump higher.
France is the archetypical European basket-case economy, a big-government entitlement culture that's kept the unemployment rate above 8% for decades and pushed it north of 10% for most of the last two years. Just Sunday the French government cut its already meager forecasts, predicting only 0.4% economic growth and rising joblessness.
Despite all that, international heavyweight France Telecom (FTE)
Having traded over $100 a share over a decade ago, the stock sunk under $12 earlier this year before rebounding to close above its 50-day-moving average of $12.57.
The specific attraction with France Telecom isn't its home turf, but rather exposure to frontier markets, including Morocco and Egypt, where mobile phone subscriptions have grown at an annualized rate of 25%. The company recently acquired a majority stake in local provider Mobinil.
As always, technique rather than simple prognostication will dictate if Europe's deep-value telecoms connect within our portfolios.
If the current negative environment for Europe repeats the massive turnaround of Latin America and other emerging markets a decade ago, any one of these admittedly troubled telecoms could pay off.—Jonathan Hoenig is managing member at Capitalistpig Hedge Fund LLC