Europe's debt problems just won't go away. Last month it was Greece. This month, investors are being hit with near-daily stories about Italy's financial woes - the country's sovereign debt totals an alarming 119 per cent of GDP. Who's next? Portugal, Spain, Ireland.
The eurozone's debt problem isn't a new story, but it will continue to weigh on investor confidence until dramatic steps are taken to turn the economies around. Unfortunately, there's no evidence that the individual countries, or the European Union, have the stomach or the will to make the hard choices required of them. Consequently, the entire region is likely to remain under pressure for the foreseeable future.
Aside from the German DAX index, the European exchanges are among the worst performing markets in the world this year. But does this weakness offer long-term opportunity for astute North American investors? Or is it simply too early to invest in Europe?
While the headline risk will remain significant for the balance of 2011, there's no reason to shun all things Europe. I'm in no rush to buy the financials or the consumer discretionary names, but some of Europe's best known companies offer exciting long-term growth prospects. And with the region under fire from investors, a few names can be had for attractive prices.
Three of my favorites are Unilever N.V. , Novartis AG and Diageo PLC . All three have held up remarkably well during the broad European retreat due in large part to strong management teams, attractive dividend yields, great brand recognition and exciting international growth opportunities. Near-term dips related to negative economic headlines should be used as a buying opportunity.
Unilever and its subsidiaries produce and supply consumer goods in food, personal care and home care categories in Asia, Africa, central and eastern Europe, the Americas and western Europe. Its line-up of popular brands includes Knorr, Hellmanns, Lipton, Ben & Jerry, Slim Fast, Dove, Suave, Ponds, St. Ives, Vaseline, Surf and Sunlight.
Earnings are projected to grow by about 20 per cent in 2011, and by nearly 10 per cent in 2012. Unilever sports a dividend yield of 3.6 per cent, and the stock, which has been trading in the low $30s, has upside potential to the mid-$40s.
Novartis AG, through its subsidiaries, engages in the research, development, manufacturing and marketing of health-care products worldwide. Through its Pharmaceutical, Vaccines & Diagnostics and Consumer Health divisions, Novartis offers an array of products that leave it well positioned for steady growth in the years to come. At 14-times earnings, the stock is relatively cheap, with a dividend yield of 3.2 per cent. Shares are currently trading around $61, near their major support level of $58-59, with long-term upside to $70 or higher.
Diageo PLC engages in producing, distilling, brewing, bottling, packaging, distributing, developing and marketing spirits, beer and wine products. Among its well-known brands are Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Baileys, Captain Morgan, Jose Cuervo, J&B, Tanqueray, Guinness, Ketel One and Seagrams.
The company's products largely insulate it from the macro-economic picture, leaving Diageo well suited to lead the European stocks once sentiment improves. The stock trades at about 16-times estimated fiscal year 2011 earnings, which are projected to jump by 22 per cent. The dividend yield is a healthy 2.4 per cent. Diageo is approaching support at $80, with a long-term price target of $95.
Robert Walberg is chief market strategist and editor of Premium Products at TheStreet. Prior to joining TheStreet, Walberg was founder and president of Chartwell Asset Management, a financial advisory company. Before founding Chartwell, he worked as a financial analyst and columnist for MSN Money from 2003 to 2008. Walberg was on the founding team at Briefing.com from 1996 to 2003, working as chief equity analyst, formulating the company's near-, intermediate- and long-term market positions.