ETF Edge-Bargains and havens amid Europe’s debt woes

* Bond investors spread risk in emerging markets

* Opportunity seen in German, Swiss ETFs and some stocks

* Two-year Greek, Spanish debt seen as risky

* Some investors attracted by double-digit yields

By Aaron Pressman

BOSTON, April 5 (Reuters) – Europe’s frayed economic union
is being hit at regular intervals by bad news from its ‘fringe’
members.

Once-stalwart countries like Ireland and Spain moved to
that edge last year and their rehabbing is far from complete.

In the latest bad news, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s cut
Portugal’s debt ratings after the country last week said it
would not meet its budget deficit target and set new elections
for June.[ID:nLDE7340WP]

European stocks have pulled back sharply in recent months,
before rebounding. Bond prices have fallen, and yields have
soared to double digits in some cases.

For investors, the lure of big returns might be too much to
resist — but the chance of a default keeps many away. One
market indicator, the level of credit default swaps, is
flashing a 40 percent chance that one will happen in Portugal
within five years.

For investors looking for ways to diversify into Europe,
there are safer ways to play. With all of the bad news slamming
the markets, Europe does offer some bargains, analysts say, and
there are ways to get in without excessive risk.

EUROPE EQUITY FUNDS

Concentrating on a few countries via Exchange Traded Funds
may be a smarter way to go than buying a broad European ETF.
according to analyst Carlos Alexandre at CXA Markets in
Dallas.

His top picks are the iShares MSCI Germany Index Fund
(EWG.P: Quote, Profile, Research) and the iShares MSCI Switzerland Index Fund (EWL.P: Quote, Profile, Research).

“The German economy, despite being somewhat joined at the
hip with the rest of the Euro zone, will inevitably benefit
from capital flows,” Alexandre said. The country still benefits
from “the perception of future earnings strength and safety.”

The big German ETF dropped as low as $23.02 last month, an
11 percent fall from the end of February. But the fund has
since recovered and, at $26.38, is 1 percent higher than the
end of February.

Switzerland is somewhat shielded from Euro problems because
it is not part of the single currency system, Alexandre said.
The Swiss ETF fell 8 percent om March but recouped it quickly.

INDIVIDUAL STOCK PLAYS

Even those who see Europe as a place with problems say
there are attractive stocks in the region.

“So many people have the view that Europe is over and done,”
David Marcus, manager of the Evermore Global Value Fund, said.
“There are real problems and the countries have issues — but
specific companies are opportunities.”

German manufacturing conglomerate Siemens AG (SIEGn.DE: Quote, Profile, Research),
for example, will benefit from savvy cost-cutting and a
restructuring of its industrial unit, Marcus said. And revenue
is rapidly growing outside of Europe. Yet the stock gyrated
between almost 100 euros and under 85 euros in March.

Because of Europe’s strong exports focus, investors can find
companies that generate much of their income abroad, notes
Michael Kass, manager of the Baron International Growth Fund
(BIGFX.O: Quote, Profile, Research).

Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA (CFR.VX: Quote, Profile, Research), which owns the
Cartier watch brand, is one example from outside Europe if
tourists buying in European stores are included, Kass said.

“This is a high returns business that is not something you
can replicate elsewhere,” he said. Standard Chartered Plc
(STAN.L: Quote, Profile, Research), the global banker whose network spans much of
Britain’s once-vast empire, does most of its business abroad,
Kass said.

HIGH-YIELD BONDS

With bonds in much of the world yielding micro-returns, the
chance to lock in 10-percent plus from a developed country does
not often arise.

The problem is that this ‘lock’ is not very secure.

Some aggressive investors are loading up on high yielding
two-year bonds from Greece and Spain. The logic is that those
countries have engineered their finances to stave off cash
shortfalls the next three years, says Kevin Flanagan, chief
fixed income strategist at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in
Purchase, N.Y.

“But you have to have a cast iron stomach for that trade,”
he said. “We would stay away from peripheral Europe and I
wouldn’t look at core Europe as much of an opportunity
either.”

No one is racing to buy Portugal’s debt. On Tuesday, after
Moody’s downgrade, yields hit an all-time high since the
creation of the euro at over 9 percent and most expect a double
digit level soon. The country’s own banks said they were
considering boycotting the bonds until a bailout comes,
according to Portuguese news reports.

Still there are many very safe credits in Europe, and most
do not have the fiscal problems of the fringe economies.

“With the dollar depreciating and the backing of China,
Europe’s bonds right now may be attractive,” said Greg
Peterson, director of investment research at Ballentine
Partners in Waltham, Mass. “And they yield more than U.S.
bonds.”

EMERGING MARKET BOND ETFs

The Euro-crisis has tended to boost bond yields of all
emerging markets, since their prices tend to move as if they
are all part of the same asset class. As a result, funds that
invest in Latin American and Asian emerging market debt have
better yields with less risk than the European markets,
Flanagan said.

Among ETFs, the $2 billion the iShares JPMorgan US Dollar
Emerging Markets Bond Fund (EMB.P: Quote, Profile, Research) and $900 million PowerShares
Emerging Markets Sovereign Debt Fund (PCY.P: Quote, Profile, Research) are two of the
largest. The iShare fund has an expense ratio of 0.6 percent
compared to 0.5 percent for Powershares.

However, in a fast changing market, the bond ETFs must stay
within its specified list of holdings. With markets volatile,
Ballentine’s Peterson says, funds that are actively managed
might be better placed to sidestep credit minefields.

MANAGING WITHOUT EUROPE

Some global players are just staying out of the
Euro-space.

One of the top-performing actively-managed funds over the
past 10 years that invests globally is the Loomis Sayles Bond
Fund (LSBRX.O: Quote, Profile, Research) which has gained almost 10 percent a year over
that period.

The fund had only a small allocation to Europe as of the
end of February, its most recent disclosure. About 3.6 percent
of the fund was in debt of Norway, 2 percent in bonds from
Ireland and 1 percent in bonds of the United Kingdom.

“Ireland has an extremely dynamic economy with fewer of the
labor market constraints than other parts of Europe,” Loomis
Sayles sovereign analyst Laura Sarlo said.

The $50 billion Templeton Global Bond Fund (TPINX.O: Quote, Profile, Research), which
has gained 11 percent a year over the past decade, is also
staying away from most European debt. It had only 1 percent of
its assets in members of the European Monetary Union at the end
of 2010.

“We remain defensive towards European bonds due to a rising
interest rate environment and the ongoing problems in the
periphery,” David Zahn, senior vice president for Franklin
Templeton in London, said.
(Reporting by Aaron Pressman) (Editing by Richard Satran and
Chelsea Emery)

ETF Edge-Bargains and havens amid Europe’s debt woes