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Europe – Out Of Complexity Comes Opportunity

By Will James, Deputy Head of European Equities, Aberdeen Standard Investments

The summer of 2016 seems like a distant memory, but given the ongoing Brexit machinations it is still bizarrely fresh in almost everyone’s mind.

When the UK voted to leave the European Union, the perceived wisdom was that Italy would be next. Three years on and the European complex is still just that - complex.

It is frustrating, perplexing even. But beyond the homogenous block, European markets offer plenty of investment opportunities for those who take the time to get to know it and understand it.

In fact, the lack of wider engagement makes it all the more interesting.

Yes, Europe is a region that is struggling for growth, but it is one of the largest profit pools globally with a compelling mix of companies. If you’re willing to take a dip or even submerge yourself, it can be an invigorating experience.

Macroeconomic growth does matter, but not as much as people believe – if you know where to look and what to look for. In my experience, for every reason that is given as to why you should not consider investing in Europe, there are just as many reasons as to why you should.

For example, much is made of the fact that Europe lacks world-class technology companies such as Amazon, Facebook or Alibaba. The recent listing of the internet group Prosus in Amsterdam may suggest otherwise. This is a bit of a red herring as a large proportion of its value resides in its holding in the Chinese tech business Tencent. However, 130km south of Amsterdam there is one of the leading technology businesses in the world, ASML. Ten years ago not many investors showed interest, but on close inspection, even in the depths of the global financial crisis, it was clear that ASML had the business model, the management team and the technology to become the dominant force it is today.

Operating in a low-growth environment is also not necessarily a bad thing for companies as it can focus the mind of the management team to drive value.

Take truck manufacturer Volvo. This is a business that after the financial crisis took the time for some real introspection and concluded that its business model was not fit for purpose. It went on to reduce costs, increase the focus on its services and has subsequently improved its financial position, rewarding shareholders with an 8 per cent dividend. Not bad in this world of low growth and low returns.

Finally, it is clear that there is growing social and environmental awareness when it comes to investing and Europe appears to be leading the way.

Consumers are highly aware of the environmental and social impact their spending habits can have. Now, investors are increasingly demanding that their investments not only deliver sustainable financial returns, but also reflect their ethical or moral values. European companies are at the forefront of this sustainable revolution, leading their industries in sustainability agendas.

One example is the Dutch company, DSM. Its corporate strategy focuses on creating a “healthy, functioning society for all” through a focus on nutrition. One of its highlights is Project Clean Cow, which has created a product that reduces bovine methane emissions - a key contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions - by 30%. Maybe DSM could find the solution to political hot air?

So, three years on from the referendum, Italy has had three different governments, has managed to trudge on, surviving a technical recession, and populist pressure.

The juxtaposition of the UK with Italy is intriguing. At my last count, the UK has had at least two, almost three governments in the same time. Perhaps we are not that different after all?

Over this time I have watched a number of European companies go from strength to strength and it remains an interesting and compelling place to invest.

Disclosures:

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