Eastern Europe Outshines Greece, Spain

LOS ANGELES ( TheStreet) -- Russian companies including Lukoil ( LUKOY), Rosneft ( ROSN) and Vimpelcom ( VIP) powered the Metzler/Payden European Emerging Markets Fund ( MPYMX) to a 52% return in the past year, the ninth-best performance of 3,250 U.S. mutual funds that buy stocks abroad.

The $198 million mutual fund doubled last year and has fallen only once during a calendar year since it was started in 2002. Still, it plunged 67% in 2008, when global stock markets collapsed.

Lukoil, Russia's top non-state oil company, Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil producer, and Vimpelcom, Russia's second-largest mobile-phone firm, are the fund's three biggest holdings, accounting for almost 12% of assets at the end of March. Energy stocks make up a fifth of the mutual fund, the second-largest industry after financials, at 25%. Materials are the No. 3 sector, representing 18% of assets.

Greek Crisis Stirs Debate (Forbes)

Vlad Milev, who helps manage the Metzler/Payden European Emerging Markets Fund, says Eastern Europe will largely skirt the debt problems plaguing southern European nations such as Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Welcome to TheStreet.com's Fund Manager Five Spot, where top mutual fund managers give their best stock picks and views on the market in a five-question format.

Southern Europe is drowning in debt. What about Eastern Europe?

Milev: Eastern Europe is actually a whole lot better when it comes to its debt or deficit situation than the rest of Europe and especially peripheral Europe. The situation there is not even close to being critical. There are a couple countries that we're looking at which may turn into a bit of a trouble spot in the coming years, but as it is right now, debt levels are very manageable.

Are the European countries that haven't adopted the euro relieved that they've held on to their currencies?

Milev: From one perspective, they are relieved because they have retained the flexibility of their monetary policies, so when times are bad, when the economy needs a little bit of extra boost, they can actually use that monetary policy to introduce that. If you look at Greece, they'll be in a whole lot of a better situation right now if they could inflate the drachma and get themselves out of the tough spot they're in right now. On the other hand, if the central bank doesn't have credibility, then you usually would have issues anyway and you may be better off inside a monetary union.

Which Eastern European country is in the best shape?

Milev: I would say Poland. Poland avoided an outright recession in 2009. It was the only country to do that in the European Union. It grew a little less than 2%, and this year it's expected to grow another 2% to 3% depending on how the forecasts pan out. From a macroeconomic perspective, it's probably your best bet right now.

As long as oil remains above $60 per barrel, will Russia be OK?

Milev: Russia will probably be fine. They make their budgets with an oil price between $60 and $65, so anything above that is gravy. They get to keep that, spend it on social programs or redistribute it, so you'll increase incomes, you'll probably give a nice boost to the economy. So with oil about $75 right now, that's a good place for Russia to be.

Which Eastern European economy is in the worst shape?

Milev: Right now, in the central Eastern European region, I'd be looking at Hungary with a bit of suspicion. They managed to really turn around the economy to some extent, but their debt levels are still pretty high. They're at the euro-zone average of about 80%, which is the highest of the region. They're struggling with the deficit as well. They just had a new government elected with a pretty large majority, so we'll just keep looking at the country carefully to see what happens going forward.

-- Reported by Gregg Greenberg in New York.
Before joining TheStreet.com, Gregg Greenberg was a writer and segment producer for CNBC's Closing Bell. He previously worked at FleetBoston and Lehman Brothers in their Private Client Services divisions, covering high net-worth individuals and midsize hedge funds. Greenberg attended New York University's School of Business and Economic Reporting. He also has an M.B.A. from Cornell University's Johnson School of Business, and a B.A. in history from Amherst College.

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