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Just as the global economic data was starting to take a turn for the positive, Greece had to go and throw cold water on the party. Despite the European Union and the International Monetary Fund announcing a $1 trillion (750 billion euro) support package for European nations struggling with crushing levels of debt, foreign markets have been spooked by the looming specter of default. This lingering fear and uncertainty has sent the MSCI EAFE Index, a measure of foreign developed markets, down nearly 10% year-to-date. And a great number of fund managers are downgrading their expectations of growth as a result.
The latest Bank of America Merrill Lynch fund manager survey revealed that only a net 42% of managers expect the global economy will strengthen over the coming 12 months, down dramatically from a net 61% that thought so in April. These beliefs played out in practice, as the percentage of surveyed managers overweight in equities fell from 52% in April to just 30% in May. Conversely, the percentage that was underweight to bonds fell from 48% to 29% as fund managers sought safety in fixed income.
So are these investment gurus on to something or are they just running scared? Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to declare an end to the global recovery, but the truth is that the situation in Greece and the potential for similar financial crises in many other European nations are going to weigh on the continent for some time to come. There’s little doubt that the bailout will stifle growth across Europe, even in relatively healthy economies such as Germany. Austerity measures implemented in Greece and other debt-riddled nations will act as a further drag on euro zone growth. All told, Europe is likely in for a decent stretch of subpar growth and middling stock market returns.
Expand your horizons
That means that investors who were banking on European stocks to lead their portfolio into the next decade may have to do some shuffling. With the crisis in Europe, many investors have remembered the world’s second largest economy, Japan. While hot growth prospects aren’t exactly bursting at the seams in this corner of the globe, this island nation is home to several stable blue-chip names. Canon (NYSE: CAJ ) and Panasonic (NYSE: PC ) , for instance, have a worldwide presence and meaningful market share in their industries, and unlike many other stocks, they haven't seen their share prices inflated by the rally.
Of course, you can’t talk about global investing without mentioning emerging markets. These high-octane countries come with higher amounts of risk, but also greater long-term rewards, if you can stomach the ups and downs in the meantime. To play emerging markets right, I’d recommend taking a broad-based approach, investing in multiple countries and regions. Two of the best exchange-traded funds for this purpose include Vanguard Emerging Market Stock ETF (NYSE: VWO ) and the SPDR S&P Emerging Markets ETF (NYSE: GMM ) . Both provide wide market coverage at a very reasonable price.
And lastly, investors shouldn’t forget about the opportunities right at their doorstep. As Europe struggles to regain its footing, the U.S. market may begin to look more and more attractive by comparison. We shouldn’t make light of the fact that we are dealing with our own hefty debt loads and could face similar problems down the road. However, right now, our economics look much more solid, meaning that domestic stock markets returns could be one of the best things going in the near future. If you’re a fan of turnaround plays, two names to consider here are Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV ) and Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD ) . Both companies face significant structural hurdles in their industry, but Southwest has managed to remain profitable over its 37-year history. And while the consensus on Sears is pretty widely negative, superstar manager Bruce Berkowitz of Fairholme (FAIRX) fame has recently been bulking up his holdings in the stock. Maybe he knows something that the rest of the investing community doesn’t.
Despite the current risks, investors would be foolish to abandon Europe entirely. While the continent’s near-term prospects are much more uncertain than they were just a few months ago, you should still keep a foot in the European market. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the recent market drop has created a whole bunch of screaming bargains, but a stock like Total (NYSE: TOT ) is still an attractive buy. The stock trades at a reasonable P/E, has a solid dividend yield, and boasts low levels of debt. Don’t run screaming from Europe, but cutting back on overall exposure if you can probably isn’t the worst idea right now.
In the end, while Europe’s problems will likely take a hefty bite out of global GDP in the coming quarters, it shouldn’t derail the recovery process entirely. It will prolong the nascent recovery phase while likely adding a hefty dose of volatility to short-term market returns. There will be more risk in the market and in the global economy in the near future, but by keeping a long-term focus and making some subtle portfolio shifts, investors can ride out the uncertainty and still come out ahead.
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