Leave it to the mainstream financial press to forget the lowly retail investor (i.e. you and me).
The December 24 cover of Barron's boldly proclaims, "Europe: Time to Buy." Upon seeing it, I'll admit that I immediately fist-pumped in agreement. (Sorry, it's a natural reflex for us New Jersey guys.) But my enthusiasm quickly waned when I flipped to the article to find out the author's proposed course of action.
He recommends buying 10 undervalued European companies. "Most are big caps and pay nice dividends, and most benefit from global sales." Cheap, lower-risk market cap companies, with solid revenue diversification and a "nice" yield, to boot. What could possibly be wrong with such an investment focus, you say?
Nothing… except the fact only two of the companies in Barron's Top 10 actually trade on a major U.S. stock exchange - Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO) and WPP plc (NASDAQ:WPPGY). (To be fair, six others trade over the counter. But only one of them - Roche Holding AG (OTCQX:RHHBY) - boasts ample liquidity.)
From my many years of advising clients and over a decade researching opportunities for retail investors, I can tell you one thing: Such a list is worthless to the average investor. Few investors trade options. Fewer still sell shares short. And even fewer than that are willing to buy stocks on a foreign exchange. Let alone 10 of them at the same time.
So today, let me do what Barron's neglected to do - provide a truly actionable way to bet on a bull market in Europe. In the process, I'll share why in the world you'd even possibly consider making such a contrarian investment.
The Key to Contrarian Investing
The thought of investing in Europe right now probably repulses you. And Barron's pretty much captures the reasons why: Lingering financial turmoil, social unrest in Greece and Spain and an economic rebound that still "seems a long way off." But all grim times eventually pass. And the best time to profit is when conditions go from bad to "less bad."
If you want proof, look no further than the residential real estate market. Last February, I noted how all the data was trending from bad to "less bad." And sure enough, the transition continued as the year unfolded, lifting the iShares U.S. Home Construction ETF (NYSEARCA:ITB) about 75% in the process.
Well, guess what? Europe's turning point is quickly approaching, too, particularly for the biggest companies. Much like their U.S. counterparts, "[European companies] took advantage of the recession to clean up their balance sheets, cut costs, trim capital expenditures and hoard cash," as Barron's notes.
The end result? They're in much better financial shape as the global economy begins to recover in earnest. So it's no surprise that analysts (including this guy) expect European companies to report profit growth as high as 10% in 2013.
As we know, the stock market is a leading indicator. And it's signaling that a transition is afoot, too. Case in point: The MSCI Europe Index (MXEU) is up 16.4% over the last six months, compared to only a 4.4% rise for the S&P 500 index.
On a country-by-country basis, the tale of the tape is just as unmistakable. Consider: Stocks in France, Germany, the U.K. and even Italy posted gains of more than 10% in 2012. Clearly, a transition from bad to "less bad" is unfolding. The good news? It's not too late to profit from it.
The Easiest Way to Play a European Revival
Even after the impressive rally, European stocks remain cheaper than U.S. stocks. And higher yielding, too.
The average European large-cap stock trades for about 11 times earnings and yields 3.8%. By comparison, the average U.S. stock trades for about 15 times earnings and yields 2.3%. So how do we easily play the burgeoning rebound, without enduring the hassle and higher commissions of buying stocks on foreign exchanges?
With the SPDR EURO STOXX 50 ETF (NYSEARCA:FEZ). The exchange-traded fund invests in 50 of Europe's bluest of blue-chip stocks, including four of the companies touted by Barron's. As such, it provides a solid dose of diversification, which reduces our downside risk.
In addition, the fund charges a reasonable expense ratio of 0.29%. There's no way we could purchase 10 stocks on foreign exchanges, let alone 50, so inexpensively. Last but not least, the fund currently yields 3.7%. So we'll get paid to wait for the rebound in European stocks to really pick up steam.
Bottom line: Barron's call to bet big on Europe in 2013 is spot on. But its recommended course of action isn't exactly feasible for the average investor. In this case, an exchange-traded fund is our best bet. So push in some chips, before it's too late.