Should charities that invest abroad fear the euro crisis?

On balance, it is likely the euro will survive, says John Hildebrand of Investec Wealth & Investment

John Hildebrand
John Hildebrand

While many charities operate solely in the UK, there are many others that invest abroad and will be exposed to European markets.

Legitimate worries about the euro persist, and this means charities might be thinking about whether the current crisis should be seen as an opportunity or a threat.

If the euro holds together, which is still the most likely outcome, then the present troubles present an opportunity. Charities can buy Spanish or Italian government bonds yielding close to 7 per cent and European shares at a 15 per cent discount to the levels they were trading at in January 2011.

If the euro collapses, however, the currencies of the weakest members could fall dramatically. This could leave charities invested in these areas with very nasty losses - particularly if they are invested in companies that hold sizeable debt denominated in euros but have few euro-denominated assets.

Charities should therefore weigh up both the likelihood of the euro splitting apart and the prices of the opportunities - or the costs of the insurance to protect themselves against such an event.

Generally, investors can obtain a fair idea of what markets think by how they price different assets. However, in recent months, equities have risen slightly in the belief that the authorities will take sufficient action to safeguard the euro.

At the same time, bond markets have shown signs of stress, with those in Spain and Italy already offering yields close to the levels that forced Ireland, Greece and Portugal to seek assistance.

We remain of the view that the various European authorities that have the power to influence the euro's survival are aware of the dangers of allowing the euro to break up and will step in to save it. Furthermore, we think that if those authorities wish to protect the euro, they have the means to do so. The euro has remained reasonably strong, at least until quite recently; some countries, such as Germany, can still borrow at rates of less than 2 per cent a year for a term of 10 years; and, assuming that inflation is not a problem, the European Central Bank could print money and use it to buy up European debt.

If there is a solution out there, one has to ask why it is not being grasped. The answer seems to be that the status quo might not be that bad for some Europeans. It has led to a slightly weaker euro, low borrowing costs (for some) and the fall of those governments that have been unwilling to tackle their fiscal deficits.

The odd thing about the situation is that the worse it gets, the more likely it is that the authorities will have to act to protect the euro, and the more willing voters might be to accept common sustainable tax policies across Europe. So bad news could end up being good news.

While the risks are high and the authorities are following a strategy that could easily fall apart, we believe on balance that the euro will survive and therefore think that charities should maintain their current exposure to equities.

John Hildebrand is an investment manager at Investec Wealth & Investment

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