By David Sterman
Sitting in the banking centers of London, Paris, and Zurich, the top European money managers have all been singing the same tune lately: "Focus on America." These investment pros were greatly concerned about the U.S. economy a few years ago, but increasingly think that our country represents the best-multi-year growth opportunities for their portfolios.
They pair that tune with another one: "Get out of Europe."
That's good advice. So far, major European economies have managed to sidestep the huge boulders being hurled from places like Greece, Italy, and Spain. Not anymore. Even as recent interventionist measures removed the risk of a major meltdown (for now), the largest European economies are only now starting to buckle, and there's a real possibility that they'll endure another tough recession.
You can already see cracks emerging in places like the United Kingdom, where government spending equates to roughly half of gross domestic product (compared with about 33% in the United States). Efforts to shrink the government, however necessary they may be, are a brake on economic growth. The British economy had been expected to grow 0.2% in the first quarter, but instead shrank -0.1%.
Meanwhile, the French and German economies had been expected to eke out very small gains this year, perhaps in the 0.5% to 1.0% range. Yet recent reports indicate that those forecasts -- just four months old, are already too aggressive. For example, French polling firm Insee found that consumer spending plunged in March. An early read on second-quarter data imply that the French economy has returned to recession mode for the first time since 2009. Over in Germany, just 27.6% of consumers expect to maintain their level of discretionary spending, according to an April survey, down from 38.6% in March. Germany may avoid recession this year, but just barely.
The incipient weakness is due to the fact key trading partners such as Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, are all expected to experience a moderate to severe economic contraction this year. In effect, a negative feedback loop between Northern Europe and Southern Europe has reappeared for the first time since 2009.
In response to the darkening economic picture, talks are set to commence next month that look for ways to throttle back many of the painful austerity measures in place, in order to keep the economic slump from deepening. How the bond markets -- and by extension stock markets -- digest the news that borrowings will remain extremely high is an open question.
For now, the best move is to start reducing your exposure to Europe. A number of companies in your portfolio likely have a degree of exposure to the continent, and you can get that information by looking at a company's 10-Q or 10-K filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (they're also readily available in the Investor Relations section of corporate websites).
To save you some time, I've made a list of companies that get at least 40% of sales from Europe. If you own any of the stocks in the table below, then you really need to question the merits of owning them right now..
The list of companies that derive between 30% and 40% of sales from Europe is considerably longer, including firms such as Hewlett Packard (NYSE: HPQ), Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI), eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW). It's tough to say on a case-by case basis whether you should continue to hold these stocks or not, but you should review your thesis for owning any stock that falls into this range.
In some instances, share prices have already slumped due to weak European demand. That's surely the case with Ford (NYSE: F) and Alcoa (NYSE: AA), two members of my $100,000 Real-Money Portfolio. They are now extremely cheap, both in terms of price-to-earnings and price-to-book. The proverbial cows are already out of the barn with these two stocks, so it pays to instead focus on their deep value opportunities.
But you do have to wonder what a yet-weaker Europe means for companies such as Priceline.com (Nasdaq: PCLN), Accenture (NYSE: ACN) and McDonald's (NYSE: MCD). These stocks trade right near their 52-week highs.
Risks to Consider: Upside risks? It's hard to see them. The possible moves to lighten the austerity push may help stop the bleeding of confidence and spending, but that's not a strong likelihood.
The U.S. economy continues to remain remarkably unscathed, so Europe's troubles aren't a reason to turn bearish on U.S. stocks. Still, events can change quickly, and you need to be prepared to take swift action to lock-in profits if global financial markets start to grumble.
Disclosure: David Sterman does not personally hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article. StreetAuthority LLC owns shares of F, AA, GOOG in one or more if its “real money” portfolios.