Standard & Poor’s dropped a bomb on Europe on Monday, downgrading the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Also known as the “bailout fund,” the EFSF was put in place to make emergency loans to Europe’s troubled sovereign borrowers.
The downgrade, though newsworthy, came as little surprise. After Standard & Poor’s downgraded France and Austria late last week, the EFSF downgrade was all but inevitable. If the guarantors of the bailout fund are no longer rated AAA, it’s hard to see how the fund itself could be. Germany is now the only major European country rated AAA by all major bond-rating agencies, and since the burden for saving the entire eurozone now rests on Germany’s shoulders, it’s debatable whether even mighty Deutschland deserves such a lofty rating.
What does this mean for investors?
Frankly, not all that much. The markets were mildly roiled by the downgrade of France, but the downgrade of the EFSF barely made a ripple. To investors battle-scarred by a volatile year of sovereign debt crises, a rating downgrade isn’t as scary as it used to be.
It seems like an eternity ago, but it was just this past August when Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. That set off a firestorm of volatility, but once the dust settled, investors realized that very little had changed. The sun still rose in the east the next morning, and the bond markets continued to function as if nothing had happened. Contrary to investment orthodoxy, yields actually fell after the U.S. downgrade.
Reaction to the European downgrades was muted. France had a successful bond auction on Monday, and Europe’s leaders met the announcement with a collective shrug.
This is not to say that all is well in the world. It’s more a case of resigned acceptance. As Matthew Broderick’s character put it in the movie The Freshman, “There’s a kind of freedom in being completely screwed because you know things can’t get any worse.”
This is more or less the market expectation for Europe today. The market has stopped reacting to bad news because more than enough bad news is already factored into prices. Ratings agencies have a well-deserved reputation for closing the barn door after the horse has already bolted. Standard & Poor’s told bond investors what they already knew — that debt-laden Europe is suffering from a crisis of confidence.
If you believe, as I do, that market confidence in Europe has reached its nadir (or, at the very least, that it’s very close), then it makes sense to start accumulating shares of high-quality European blue-chip multinationals. I’ve been wildly bullish on the prospects of German stocks in recent months, but France has its share of attractive companies as well. Investors may want to consider picking up shares of French oil major Total S.A. (NYSE:TOT) on any weakness. Total trades for just seven times earnings and yields an impressive 5% in dividends.
Investors seeking yield may be particularly interested in French telecom giant France Telecom S.A. (NYSE:FTE). France Telecom trades for 10 times earnings and yields over 9% in dividends. In addition to its dominant position in France, France Telecom also has great exposure in Africa and other fast-growing emerging markets.
If you prefer a one-stop shop for French stocks, the iShares MSCI France ETF (NYSE:EWQ) would be a good bet. In addition to Total and France Telecom, EWQ counts luxury powerhouse Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton and pharmaceutical giant Sanofi among its largest holdings.