Productivity vs. Culture: One Perspective on European ETFs

 |  Includes: EIS, EWA, EWC, EWG, EWI, EWL, EWN, EWP, EWQ
by: Gary Gordon

I went skiing at Snow Summit in Big Bear over the holiday weekend. The slopes at the resort were spectacularly groomed, and Saturday’s massive blizzard treated visitors to a foot or more of fresh powder.

A severe downpour in the city of Big Bear? From an investment adviser’s vantage point, the actuality was more than a little ironic.

Nonetheless, it was an extraordinary mini-vacation. When we weren’t skiing, we were shoveling. And when neither driving nor skiing were an option, well ... we channel-surfed the cabin’s flat screen.

By Monday, though, I turned over the remote to my wife and daughter. They wanted to watch Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. And that meant ... I was seriously stuck.

As awful as this movie turned out to be, it did serve to stimulate a number of investment ideas. It may sound silly ... but “Big Bear” with me for a moment.

Eat Pray Love is the story of a woman who searches for life’s answers in three very different countries: Italy, India and Indonesia. In Italy, Julia Roberts indulges in the earthly pleasures of pizza and pasta. In India, she pursues happiness through non-earthly spiritual transcendence. And in Indonesia, she seeks a balance between mind and body.

I watched the Academy Award winning actress interact with the people in dissimilar places, and paid particular attention to a popular aspect of Italian culture. The phrase is ”La dolcezza di non fare niente!” Roughly translated, this refers to the sweetness of doing nothing ... and the movie referenced the lifestyle on more than one occasion.

Of course I’m aware that Eat Pray Love is a semi-autobiographical account condensed into 100 minutes. In other words, it’s a movie ... not the “gospel.” Nevertheless, I’ve spoken with many Italians, and they often emphasize that they “work to live,” rather than “live to work.” In fact, I have Italian friends who describe Americans as unhappy because we only live to work.

As a visitor, I imagine Italy to be one of the most wonderful places on earth. But as an investor, I may want to invest in the societies that are “living to work,” irrespective of perceived happiness.

Specifically, I am not particularly interested in choosing a Country ETF based on the happiness of its people. Yet I may be intrigued by whether those countrymen and country-women are working and producing.

Indeed, Italy and Spain are deemed less productive by GDP measures. In 2011, the forecasts for Italy and Spain are 1.1% and 0.4% respectively. In Switzerland, it’s 2.1% and in Germany it’s 2.8%.

From where I watch, then, productivity and culture may contribute to the reasons why Spain and Italy are part of the unflattering “PIIGS.” The under-productivity of Italy’s dwindling producer base implies less tax revenue to care for retired Italians. It follows that Italy is running out of ways to pay back its debts/obligations. And while Italy is not the only country dealing with austerity measures, iShares MSCI Italy (NYSEARCA:EWI) won’t look attractive to me unless the most productive country, China, starts buying EWI shares or Italian villas.

Consider Tuesday’s epic market beat-down across the entire equity asset class. Middle East uncertainty and oil price volatility encouraged profit-taking. Still, take a gander at Developed Country ETF performance:

22-Feb-11 Approx 1 Year
iShares MSCI Italy (EWI) -5.6% 5.1%
iShares MSCI Spain (NYSEARCA:EWP) -4.6% 5.9%
iShares MSCI Israel (NYSEARCA:EIS) -3.9% 3.6%
iShares MSCI Australia (NYSEARCA:EWA) -3.6% 16.8%
iShares MSCI France (NYSEARCA:EWQ) -3.3% 11.9%
iShares MSCI Canada (NYSEARCA:EWC) -1.5% 28.6%
iShares MSCI Switzerland (NYSEARCA:EWL) -1.7% 16.9%
SPDR S&P 500 Trust (NYSEARCA:SPY) -2.0% 21.9%
iShares MSCI Germany (NYSEARCA:EWG) -2.2% 28.5%
iShares MSCI Netherlands (NYSEARCA:EWN) -2.3% 16.4%
Click to enlarge

I wouldn’t pretend to suggest that culture alone is the reason you should choose one country or one region over another for your portfolio. Then again, it would be foolish to summarily dismiss the role of culture in the outperformance of Germany (EWG) and Switzerland (EWL); they’ve been stronger and less volatile than Italy (EWI) and Spain (EWP) over 1, 3 and 5 years.

Disclosure: Gary Gordon, MS, CFP is the president of Pacific Park Financial, Inc., a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC. Gary Gordon, Pacific Park Financial, Inc, and/or its clients may hold positions in the ETFs, mutual funds, and/or any investment asset mentioned above. The commentary does not constitute individualized investment advice. The opinions offered herein are not personalized recommendations to buy, sell or hold securities. At times, issuers of exchange-traded products compensate Pacific Park Financial, Inc. or its subsidiaries for advertising at the ETF Expert web site. ETF Expert content is created independently of any advertising relationships.