France has enchanted the hearts, and stomachs, of romantics for decades.
Personally, I'm fond of relaxing on a summer evening while enjoying a glass of wine from the vineyards of Bordeaux along with a lovely bit of cheese.
However, on matters economic, most people wouldn't point to France as a beacon of capitalism. After all, its current president, François Hollande, is an avowed socialist who was swept into power on a promise to tax the rich. His election solidified the country's already poor business reputation.
But it would be wrong to count France out over the long term. After all, short-term missteps have a habit of being reversed and they can also lead to bargain prices. It's an environment that has prompted some brave investors to pick up French stocks.
One such investor is Nate Tobik, who runs the Oddball Stocks website (oddballstocks.com) from his home in Pittsburgh. By day, he's a project manager in the IT industry, but at night he indulges in his passion for finding cheap stocks in corners of the market where many fear to tread. He's naturally attracted to tiny stocks and likes both foreign firms and unlisted companies.
I first came across his work when looking for stocks that pass money manager Benjamin Graham's Net Net test. These stocks cost less than their current assets, minus all liabilities, and are something of an endangered species these days. Mr. Tobik follows a few unlisted Net Nets that make up a small portion of his portfolio, but I'm reluctant to suggest them to a broad audience.
Instead, let's turn our attention to some of the listed stocks he follows that could be of interest to micro-cap aficionados. He categorizes most as either "cash boxes" or "two-pillar" stocks.
Cash boxes are profitable businesses that come with a big pile of cash on the side. Much like Net Nets, the balance sheets is a primary consideration in selecting these stocks. But cash boxes tend to be a little more expensive and run better businesses.
A good example is the French firm Installux SA (STAL-Paris), which hails from Saint-Bonnet-de-Mure, Rhône-Alpes. It's a small, thinly traded concern that makes aluminum profiles and accessories for the building finishing sector. The company is generating a profit and sports a low price-to-earnings ratio (P/E) of 7.2, which is pretty good on its own.
But the firm also has €21-million ($28.5-million) worth of cash on its balance sheet and little in the way of long-term debt. The pile of money represents nearly half of the firm's €48-million market capitalization, which puts it nicely in the cash box category. (Stock data courtesy of S&P Capital IQ.)
Moving up a notch on the price scale, Mr. Tobik also likes what he calls two-pillar stocks. These are firms that trade at low price-to-book-value ratios (P/B) and low earnings multiples. Value investors might be happy when a stock has one low ratio, but two offer even better support.
Generally speaking, two-pillar stocks hold less excess money than cash boxes. But, as you might imagine, the categories often overlap.
Nexeya SA (ALNEX-Paris) is a good example of a two-pillar stock from Paris. It makes electronics for the defence, aeronautics, and transportation sectors and trades at a low P/B of 0.5 and modest P/E of 6.2. Mr. Tobik has high hopes for the small company and thinks it might climb back to near book value once again.
I have a soft spot for Mr. Tobik's value investing philosophy. But, much like a slice of Roquefort cheese, the tiny firms he favours aren't for everyone. If you're looking for a bit of extra flavour to determine whether these firms might suit your own palate, check out what his site has to offer.