Inside Wall Street: Irish stocks are smiling

The Irish government takes action to rekindle investor interest in the nation.

By Gene Marcial Mar 19, 2012 9:50AM

With St. Patrick's Day just behind us, what's a better and more propitious time to talk about investing in Ireland? I spoke on Friday with Joan Burton, the minister for Social Protection and the deputy leader of the Irish Labour Party, who was visiting New York to help celebrate the most globally popular Irish holiday.


I had a very informative and refreshing interview as she updated me on the positive change that apparently is taking place in Ireland amid the messy financial conditions in some countries in Europe -- and in spite of continuing fears among worried and less-informed investors about Ireland's developing situation.


"Ireland is back, and investing now in Ireland would be a very timely idea, and should definitely produce rewards over the long run," says Burton, who was the finance spokesperson for the Labour Party up to 2011. A trained CPA, the minister worked for PriceWaterhouse in Dublin before starting her electoral political career. She was elected to the Irish Parliament a number of times before her appointment to the Cabinet.


She attests with confidence that economic conditions in the country are already starting to improve, with new orders for Ireland's goods and business activity beginning to increase noticeably. Burton also points to "Ireland's enduring attractiveness as a destination for foreign direct investment, underpinned by our 12.5% corporate tax rate." While it may be premature to claim that Ireland has been reborn, early indications suggest the country is on the road to economic recovery, she says.


As in any type of investing, the largest returns are usually realized by people who step up before all of the stars have aligned. So Burton strongly suggests that U.S. investors as well as American companies should put some of their investment money in Ireland for the simple reason that "we are confident that our mandate to implement measures for reform and recovery will succeed."


Information technology, education, healthcare, and real estate are among the sectors of the economy representing the best investment opportunities right now in Ireland, says the Minister. At the same time, she is also encouraged by the increased interest in the areas of financial services, digital media, gaming, and pharmaceuticals, as the government has adopted measures to boost these industries.


She notes that President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton have been upbeat about opportunities in Ireland and have expressed support for the nation's turnaround. Bill Clinton, in a speech before a public forum not too long ago, understood and underscored the idea that Ireland wants investments, not a bailout.


"Now is the time to invest in Ireland, where property is a steal," said Clinton. Ireland has "the best-educated workforce in the world," he noted. Burton says President Obama, Bill Clinton and others who have expressed support for investing in Ireland are aware of the improving economic scenario in the country, even as virtually the rest of Europe is mired in multifold problems and economic stagnation. Ireland has appealed to a group of investors pulled together by the William J. Clinton Foundation to consider the opportunities in Ireland.


"We definitely are turning the corner," says Burton, with the country and its government exceeding their targets for a faster and well-rounded economic recovery, she adds.


For investors seeking an investment play on Ireland, some analysts recommend betting on the ETF iShares MSCI Ireland Capped Investable Market Index Fund (EIRL). The ETF tracks the price performance of underlying holdings in the MSCI Ireland Investable Market 25/50 index. This index measures the performance of stocks in the top 99% by market capitalization of the equity securities listed on stock exchanges in Ireland.


So far, the Ireland ETF is the only major game in town on investing in Ireland's securities. PowerShares and State Street Global Advisors have registered ETFs consisting of stocks traded in Ireland, but they have yet to be launched.


Shares of EIRL have been on an upswing despite the European financial mess, trading at $23.58 a share, very close to their 52-week high of $23.80, and way above is 52-week low of $16.76. Right now, most analysts are down on ETFs related to Europe, but that is why the opportunity to make big bucks in iShares Ireland ETF is potentially huge, according to the Irish bulls. The ETF is invested in many sectors of Ireland's economy, including technology, pharmaceuticals, real estate, and educational services.


Burton points out that the reason Ireland is such a good buy now is that it isn't one of the nations in Europe that are vulnerable to economic disaster. It shouldn't be lumped together with such strapped and troubled countries as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. "We have learned from our earlier mistakes, and we have, for example, strengthened our banking system and refined government regulations," she says.


So for investors seeking to take advantage of hidden opportunities in Europe, Ireland stands out as among the best bets in that financially challenged part of the world.


Gene Marcial wrote the column "Inside Wall Street" for Business Week for 28 years and now writes for MSN Money's Top Stocks. He also wrote the book "Seven Commandments of Stock Investing," published by FT Press.

Tags: EIRLetf
Mar 19, 2012 12:52PM
If Billy says Ireland is a good opportunity, then it's time to pull out of Ireland.
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