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Celtic Tiger Tries to Roar Again

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Five years on from the global recession that hit the eurozone harder than it hit the U.S., progress is being made, albeit very slowly, toward economic normalcy.

The latest sign is Ireland's announcement that it will exit bailout protection next month and do so without the safety net of a credit line. The Irish Times notes that this is "not only a momentous moment for Ireland, it is also of huge significance for Europe."

Ireland was once referred to as the Celtic Tiger. It offered one of the world's lowest corporate tax rates which brought many foreign companies into the country and created many jobs. That led to prosperity and caused a housing boom similar to the U.S. that eventually blew up, taking down the housing market and the banking system.

The large banks were nationalized, the country received bailouts from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, and bond yields soared into the double digits.

Today bond yields have plummeted to about 4%, and the country has enough cash on hand to meet its obligations into 2015. Earlier this year, the country emerged from a multiyear recession. Headline unemployment is still high at 13% but has been coming down the last couple of years. Still, the unemployment rate for people younger than 25 years old is a troubling 28%.

Optimism for a return to normalcy has been reflected in equity prices. Year to date, the Irish Stock Exchange Overall Index is up 34%.

U.S. investors interested capturing the Celtic Tiger for their portfolios can consider the iShares MSCI Ireland Capped ETF (EIRL).

Investing in Ireland though exchange-traded funds has changed radically as a result of the financial crisis. EIRL is not the first ETF to invest in the country. Before the crisis, Northern Trust (NTRS) issued a line of single country funds that were closed very quickly for a lack of assets. Included in the group was a fund covering Ireland which had a 30% weighting in the financial sector dominated by Allied Irish Bank and Anglo Irish Bank, both of which have since been nationalized.

EIRL started trading in 2010 after most of the changes in the index occurred, and so the fund is not much different today than it was three years ago.

Materials is still the largest sector with its weight having grown to 31% from 25% three years ago. Industrials are the second largest sector at 23%, followed by consumer staples at 20%. Financials now make up just 10% of the fund.

The fund does take single stock risk with construction materials company CRH (CRH) as the largest holding at 25% of the fund. Food company Kerry Group (KRYAY) has a 13% weighting and biotech firm Elan (ELN) has an 11% weighting.

The country is taking a calculated risk as it moves forward without a safety net. The confidence in the recovery so far shown by government leaders can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and lead to increased confidence and animal spirits, perhaps hastening a full recovery.

The large rally this year can be attributed in part to the story on the ground and also the run-up in many equity markets being spurred on by easy central bank policy. There is a good chance that the Irish market will continue to rise as long as the other global markets continue to do. That is not particularly healthy in terms of normal market function but it has been the reality for many global markets in 2013.

As one administrative note about EIRL, fund provider iShares has announced that on Nov. 27, the fund will begin to track the MSCI All Ireland Capped Index which should help mitigate the single stock risk issue.

Under the new index, the "sum of all issuers weights above 5% does not exceed 50% of the index." At present, the issuers with weights above 5% total just over 70% of the fund. The largest holdings will likely be the same but in smaller weightings which should make for a more diversified product.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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