Is it time to revisit southern Europe?

With fund managers clinging on to 'safe' northern European stocks, have the likes of Nestlé and Unilever become too expensive? And are there bargains to be had in the south?

Iwrote here about how given the cheapness of many of the peripheral eurozone markets, it might be time to start putting in a little money. The markets will probably get cheaper there's still too much hope knocking around but nonetheless, on their current cyclically adjusted p/e ratios the likes of Spain and Italy really don't look so bad.

Having had that thought last week and being unwilling to suggest that any of you took the risk of buying only a couple of stocks (who knows how the crisis is going to affect individual companies?) -I started to look for a good fund to suggest.

It wasn't easy. We've often complained about consensus investing among the big fund managers and the lack of really active thinking or trading among the managers we all pay to be active. But look at the top holdings of the big European managers and you will really see what we mean.

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They are all heavily invested in the north of Europe. They are all almost entirely absent from the south. They all hold Nestl. They all hold Unilever. They all hold Sanofi. They all hold SAP. And so on. There is an astonishing lack of diversification.

Now, Nestl and Unilever aren't bad companies. Far from it. But it just doesn't seem quite right that everyone has them. I asked one top performing European manager about it. He didn't see it as a problem. Take Nestl he said. It is 5% of the benchmark (there's a clue as to why managers judged against the benchmark like to hold it here); it has almost no debt; it can borrow at almost zero should it want to; input prices for its products are falling; it pays a 4% dividend; and if the euro keeps weakening, it will see profits upgrades as dollar earnings are translated back into euros.

That seems entirely reasonable. But I noted afterwards running through our emails -that there had been no mention of price, the point being that great companies can very easily become expensive stocks.

Then I asked Chris Rice, the manager of the Cazenove European Fund. He rather agrees that some of these favoured stocks are overbought and overpriced he sold Unilever and Nestl last week. Time, he says, to take a look at the likes of Axa and Renault instead.

Finally I spoke to the mostly nice people at Hargreaves Lansdown who provided me with a list of the European funds with the most exposure to theperipheral eurozonemarkets for those of you who are interested (see below).

Subscribers can read more on this in this week's magazine, out on Friday.

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SVM Continental Europe A28.58%
GLG Esprit Continental Euro Ret Acc23.74%
Artemis European Growth R Acc22.91%
JPM Euroland Equity A Acc EUR21.91%
BNY Mellon Small Cap Euroland A EUR21.43%
Standard Life Inv European Equity Growth Ret Acc20.30%
Standard Life Inv European Ethical Equity Ret19.02%
Invesco Perpetual European Equity Acc18.67%
BGF Euro-Markets Fund A2 EUR18.48%
Franklin European Small-Mid Cap Growth A (acc) EUR17.63%
Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.