International stocks: Tailwinds Picking Up

Opportunity outside the U.S.

International stocks: Tailwinds Picking Up

After a decade out of favor, international value stocks are overdue for a comeback, notes ClearBridge PM Safa Muhtaseb, thanks in part to better prospects for cyclical sectors in Europe.

Key takeaways

  • After a decade of being out of favor, international value stocks are overdue for a comeback.
  • Europe’s high exposure to cyclical stocks is evolving from a drag to a benefit as prices firm and the yield curve begins to steepen.
  • Accelerating earnings growth and stimulus measures are expected to drive international stock performance going forward.

The shift to value

International and value equities have been playing catch-up to their U.S. and growth counterparts since the global financial crisis. The failure of foreign central banks to move as quickly and decisively as U.S. policymakers in stemming credit losses is partly to blame for lagging stock performance.

But the composition of value indices has also contributed to a disconnect in returns -- given the indices' close ties to sectors hurt the most in the commodities downturn, and lack of exposure to the best performing sectors during the low growth recovery (consumer staples and information technology).

The MSCI All Country World Ex-U.S. Value Index has outperformed its growth counterpart over the last 12 months - following a decade of underperformance - and we believe improving global growth should continue to support a value comeback. Global manufacturing activity is running at levels well above mean, global trade is recovering and many geopolitical risks have abated. Overall, the reflation trade appears to be sustainable as economic activity increases and corporate earnings improve. Such trends should be particularly favorable to the cyclical sectors, such as financials and energy, that currently dominate value benchmarks.  

There's A Strong Tilt Toward Cyclicals in the International Value Benchmark (ACWI)

SectorACWI Ex-US ValueACWI Ex US Growth
Consumer Discretionary9.69%13.23%
Consumer Staples1.64%18.77%
Health Care3.51%12.99%
Information Technology5.00%15.70%
Real Estate4.34%2.15%

As of May 31, 2017. Source: MSCI. 

As value managers, we seek to invest when the discrepancies between stock prices and intrinsic values are at their widest. In some cases, we may be early in seeking out mispriced companies before valuation gaps begin to close. The slow recovery of European banks and Europe overall offer two such examples.

Zero inflation and negative interest rates have stifled banks and are one of three headwinds, along with falling commodity prices and weak emerging markets (EM), which have limited GDP and profit growth in Europe. Yet these headwinds have begun to recede, creating opportunities for stock price appreciation.

A change in the weather

Europe is highly exposed to energy- and commodity-producing companies, two areas where profitability has fallen the most. Commodity declines beginning in 2014 forced companies in these sectors to scale back production and investment, leaving unutilized capacity significantly lower. Over the last year, prices of crude oil and industrial metals like copper, iron ore and steel have gradually recovered. As prices and capacity utilization improve, the profitability of energy, mining and related commodity producers should also improve.

The region is also heavily exposed to financials. In addition to nonexistent inflation and negative real rates, European banks have been held back by an onerous regulatory environment that forced many to abandon profitable business lines and reduce leverage to meet new capital requirements.

However, restrictions are starting to loosen, while improving loan demand is spurring better economic growth. We are likely in the late stages of monetary easing, which should lead sovereign yield curves in the eurozone to steepen, improving interest margins.

Many leading European multinationals rely heavily on emerging markets, a demand region that has struggled for most of the last five years. But as we discussed in a recent blog, EM consumption has stabilized and is beginning to pick up again. A healthy EM consumer removes the final drag on a meaningful expansion in Europe.

More broadly, the eurozone economy is trending in the right direction. GDP in the eurozone grew at an annual rate of 2.0% in the first quarter and is projected to grow at a rate of 1.7% for the full year. Wages are picking up and companies are showing signs of pricing power, which is flowing through to improved margins and profitability. Capital markets activity is also encouraging, with bond issuance picking up as companies re-lever. European companies are returning to shareholder-friendly activities, including share buybacks and M&A. We are also seeing increased corporate spending on talent and infrastructure. 

From headwinds to tailwinds

European equities are now on the right side of momentum. Three of the major headwinds holding back earnings have dissipated, if not disappeared. Meanwhile, the fourth quarter of 2016 marked the end of six years of European corporate profit declines, and we’re seeing earnings estimates revised upward across the region. One leading analyst has projected earnings growth at double-digit rate in every region outside the U.S. this year. Stocks could also see additional catalysts from fiscal stimulus as austerity measures over the last several years have left many European countries with the budgetary capacity to spend while sturdy balance sheets give companies in Asia leeway to increase capex. For U.S.-based investors, currency conditions also appear favorable as we have likely seen the peak of monetary policy divergence that has caused the euro to fall to a 14-year low against the U.S. dollar.

We believe the underperformance of value equities over the past ten years is reversing and that headwinds will abate and tailwinds will begin to stir. Reflation is firmly in place and we have identified significant opportunities in Europe at attractive valuations. Challenges are abating related to politics, nationalism, protectionism - providing the economic growth and rising profits necessary for value stocks to recover.  


IMPORTANT INFORMATION: All investments involve risk, including loss of principal. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. An investor cannot invest directly in an index. Unmanaged index returns do not reflect any fees, expenses or sales charges.

Equity securities are subject to price fluctuation and possible loss of principal. Fixed-income securities involve interest rate, credit, inflation and reinvestment risks; and possible loss of principal. As interest rates rise, the value of fixed income securities falls. International investments are subject to special risks including currency fluctuations, social, economic and political uncertainties, which could increase volatility. These risks are magnified in emerging markets.

The opinions and views expressed herein are not intended to be relied upon as a prediction or forecast of actual future events or performance, guarantee of future results, recommendations or advice.  Statements made in this material are not intended as buy or sell recommendations of any securities. Forward-looking statements are subject to uncertainties that could cause actual developments and results to differ materially from the expectations expressed. This information has been prepared from sources believed reliable but the accuracy and completeness of the information cannot be guaranteed. Information and opinions expressed by either Legg Mason or its affiliates are current as at the date indicated, are subject to change without notice, and do not  take into account the particular investment objectives, financial situation or needs of individual investors.