Topic: ETFs

iShares MSCI Switzerland ETF taps global leaders

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A Member of Pat McKeough’s Inner Circle recently asked for his advice on an ETF that tracks this European nation’s top big-cap and mid-cap stocks.

Switzerland has a stable, export-oriented economy, which regularly ranks among the most competitive in the world. Pat notes that the fund has trailed a leading world index over the last five years. Still, it offers exposure to international top-performing companies outside of North America.

Q: Pat, I want to invest in Swiss stocks and was wondering what your thoughts are on Switzerland, in general, and the iShares MSCI Switzerland ETF, in particular? Thank you.

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ISHARES MSCI SWITZERLAND ETF $34.57 (New York symbol EWL; TSI Network ETF Rating: Conservative; Market cap: $902 million) tracks the performance of the country’s top big-cap and mid-cap stocks.

Health-care companies account for 31.1% of its assets, while Consumer Defensive (22.0%), Financial Services (19.3%), Basic Materials (9.3%), and Industrials (9.2%) are other key segments.

The ETF holds a portfolio of 38 stocks; the top 10 holdings make up a sizeable 68.5% of its assets. They are Nestle (consumer defensive, 19.4%), Novartis (health care, 13.1%), Roche Holding (health care, 12.6%), Zurich Insurance (financials, 4.4%), UBS Group (financials, 3.9%), Cie Financiere Richemont (consumer cyclical, 3.6%), ABB (industrials, 3.4%), Credit Suisse (financials, 2.9%), Swiss Re (financials, 2.8%) and LafargeHolcim (basic materials, 2.3%).

The large weighting of the top three holdings increases the portfolio’s stock-specific risks. However, these companies are among the global leaders for their respective industries, with long histories of profitable operations.

The ETF started up in March 1996 and charges an MER of 0.47%. The fund has a mid-sized asset base but liquidity is strong with an average of $32.4 million in units trading daily.

The fund has a p/e of 15.6 based on the forward earnings of the stocks it holds, and pays an annual dividend, which amounted to $0.8072 in 2018; the yield is 2.3%.

The Swiss Confederation was founded in 1291 as a defensive alliance for three cantons (regional states).

In succeeding years, other localities joined the original three. The Swiss Confederation secured its independence from the Roman Empire in 1499.

The constitution of 1848 replaced the confederation with a centralized federal government. Switzerland’s sovereignty and neutrality have long been honoured by the major European powers, and the country was not involved in either of the two world wars. The political and economic integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as Switzerland’s role in many international organizations, has strengthened its ties with neighbouring nations.

The country is relatively small by landmass, less than 1% of the size of Canada. The population count is 8.4 million with a workforce of 5.1 million. Its official languages are German, French and Italian.

Switzerland is a prosperous and modern market economy with low unemployment, a highly skilled labour force, and a GDP per person among the highest in the world.

The economy benefits from a highly developed service sector, led by financial services, and a manufacturing industry that specializes in high-technology and knowledge-based production. Its economic and political stability, the transparent legal system, exceptional infrastructure, efficient capital markets, and low corporate tax rates also make Switzerland one of the world’s most competitive economies.

The Swiss have brought their economic practices largely into conformity with the EU to gain access to that single market and enhance the country’s international competitiveness. The fate of the Swiss economy is tightly linked to that of its neighbours in the euro zone, which purchases half of all Swiss exports.

Inner Circle: A consistent budget surplus keeps Switzerland’s economy strong

Economic growth has varied between 1% and 3% for most of the past 20 years with the only significant decline occurring in 2008-2009 when the economy fell into a recession. However, the recovery was fairly rapid with a return to positive growth by early 2010.

Reaching about 2.9%, economic growth for 2018 was strong. Exchange rate depreciation in late 2017 and early 2018 led to strong increases in exports. Growth is expected to slow to 1.5% for 2019 and for 2020.

The government runs a budget surplus of around 1.0% of GDP, which is a rare occurrence in the developed world.

Unsurprisingly, government debt is relatively low at 40% of GDP, with the primary rating agencies awarding AAA investment grade credit ratings to the country.

Inflation remains low and stable with the latest core inflation reading measured at 0.5%. Estimates indicate that inflation should remain below 1% annually for the foreseeable future.

The central bank continues to stimulate economic activity with its monetary policy designed to keep interest rates negative. The policy rate is now at -0.75%. The 10-year government bond rate is at -0.199%, reflecting the low inflation rate and negative policy rate.

The Swiss franc has traded in a relatively narrow band for most of the past five years. However, earlier, in 2010 and 2011, speculative activity resulted in extreme strength for the franc, which later forced the central bank to intervene to stabilize and normalize the value of the currency.

The iShares MSCI Switzerland ETF has an impressive long-term performance record; since the fund’s inception in 1996, it has averaged a return of 6.6% a year for a total rise of 328.1%.

The past five years have delivered a less impressive result for the fund, which gained just 17.3% compared to the 40.5% rise for the broadly focused MSCI All Country Equity Index.

For conservative investors who want exposure to Switzerland, the iShares MSCI Switzerland ETF is a buy.


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