Irish Stocks Still Lucky

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Like many European countries, Ireland saw its fortunes hit hard by the region's financial crisis. Nevertheless, the tremendous comeback in its stock market has a lot more to do with the pluck of the Irish than luck, said Noel O'Halloran, portfolio manager of the New Ireland Fund ( IRL). The closed-end fund, which was launched in March 1990, has returned an impressive 30% so far this year.

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The New Ireland Fund is having a fantastic year even while other European country funds are struggling. What is driving this outperformance?

O'Halloran: First, the outperformance can be attributed to our active stock-picking. As a relatively small stock market, Ireland lends itself to active stock-picking. The portfolio is a focused portfolio of just over 20 names. Style-wise, I have maintained a high quality focus, or, in other words, we look for strong balance sheets, cash flow and management. I also focus on stocks with positive earnings momentum and dividend paying ability when possible. Thus far I have been avoiding low quality and deep value stocks, as I don't believe the recovery to be strong enough at this point to benefit more "fragile" stocks.

Why is the Irish economy moving forward in the face of austerity while so many other European nations are falling behind?

O'Halloran: Ireland arguably started to restructure its economy earlier. It recapitalized the banks, for example, and brought in a series of harsh budgets. Fortunately, the Irish people didn't rebel on the streets and accepted the reform more than many European counterparts. From a recovery perspective, we are recovering via the export economy, rather than the domestic economy, which is hit hard by austerity. The export economy is doing very well because unit labor costs have come down by about 25% since 2009 relative to Europe. Furthermore, we still have strong trade linkages to the US and UK which in relative terms have held up better than other economies.

What is your view of Ryanair (RYAAY)?

O'Halloran: I like Ryanair and it is in the top three holdings in the fund. Their low-cost model, strong management and cost focus helps them remain a winner in these "austere" times. The strong balance sheet allows them make a special dividend payment over coming months to shareholders which is unique in their sector.

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