It s a familiar story> in the U.S.: companies shuffling top management and selling off assets in an effort to become more profitable. But these days foreign firms are increasingly getting in on the restructuring act, a trend that could be a boon to U.S. investors.
In the past foreign firms, especially old-fashioned conglomerates, often seemed willing to ignore inefficient businesses. But fund managers say the ongoing sluggish global economy along with a rash of rabble-rousing shareholder activists have made even these firms refocus. Over the past year dozens of big foreign firms have announced major restructurings. These changes can be good for investors, particularly if companies are focusing on more-profitable businesses and getting out of areas where they lagged behind, analysts say. Matthew McLennan, manager of the $21 billion First Eagle Global fund, says many of these foreign giants can boost efficiency and profits, whether the economy improves or not. Improvement in productivity is the only secret sauce there is, he says.
One of the biggest potential restructuring stories is European retailer Carrefour. Analysts say the recession caught the company flat-footed, with too many far-flung operations selling too many products. The firm is consolidating its brands and selling its stores in shaky markets, McLennan says, moves that should eventually help the stock. There are turnaround tales on the other side of the globe, too.
Malaysian conglomerate Genting, which has such disparate businesses as generating electricity and owning rubber plantations, is trimming to focus on its prime business: running casinos. The stock, which doesn t trade on U.S. exchanges, is accessible through most brokerage firms.
Even in Japan, often criticized for its status-quo corporate culture, changes are emerging. High-tech conglomerate Fujitsu reshuffled its board amid a public feud with its former president. Meanwhile, Panasonic is consolidating once independently run units as it builds itself into a green-energy giant.
To be sure, some firms are desperate to restructure simply because they are laden with debt and fighting for survival. That s why veteran investors such as David Marcus, cofounder of Evermore Global Advisors, is focusing on firms that are revamping their businesses to get ahead rather than just trying to stay afloat.