Ireland ETF Is Mired in PIIGS Debt Crisis

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Ireland was transformed from a Celtic Tiger to one of the PIIGS.

The European country used to post fast economic growth and boasted of high personal income, helped by tax cuts and favorable business conditions. That eventually led to over-indebtedness (200% of gross domestic product in 2008), a housing bubble and a collapse of large banks. As one of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain), the nation faces a long and uncertain path to recovery.

I used to be favorably disposed to the country. I owned Allied Irish Bank ( AIB) for most clients until I sold the stock in March 2008. In an article for TheStreet in 2005, I noted the following about Ireland: It "offers a healthy and growing economy with a pro-business government, and is one of the wealthiest countries in Europe per capita. Yet there is no ETF that U.S. investors can easily access."

Dead ETFs Walking (Forbes)

In 2008, Northern Trust ( NTRS) listed an Ireland exchange traded fund under the NETS brand, though the asset manager quickly pulled all its country funds.

Now, iShares has listed the MSCI Ireland Capped Investable Market Index Fund ( EIRL). Financials comprise 14% of the ETF, the fourth-largest industry after materials, at 25%, consumer staples, with 23%, and industrials, at 17%.

The iShares ETF has only 21 holdings, with the largest being CRH ( CRH), at 21%. CRH is a building-materials firm. That might not seem to be a great business to be in, given overcapacity in the Irish housing market, but the country has a global footprint, with most of its revenue coming from abroad. The stock has dramatically outperformed the iShares S&P Global Materials Sector ETF ( MXI) since the stock-market low in March 2009.

The Irish government has taken austerity measures, including raising the minimum retirement age and trying to make the country an even more attractive place to do business. But for now, the country is a long way from being healthy. The budget deficit is hovering at around 14% of GDP and debt is astronomically high.

Ireland's benchmark stock-market index has surged 70% in the past 15 months, equal to the rally in Germany and better than the performance of France.

For now, though, it might be best to avoid Ireland. When the country becomes the Celtic Tiger again, the iShares ETF probably will still be available for purchase.

At the time of publication, MXI was a client holding.

Roger Nusbaum is a portfolio manager with Your Source Financial of Phoenix, and the author of Random Roger's Big Picture Blog. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Nusbaum appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

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