European stock markets in 2006 were very good to investors

Shares of Danish brewer Carlsberg are up 59% this year, helped by Russia's taste for beer.

carlsberg 88 (photo credit: )
carlsberg 88
(photo credit: )
Investors into European stock markets have had a strong 2006, with a surge in mergers-and-acquisitions activity and the economic rebound on the Continent lifting stocks. In local terms, the MSCI Europe index is up 15 percent through December 19, so investors largely couldn't have gone wrong investing in any region. Investors from the United States are doing even better, with the dollar-denominated MSCI Europe index up 29%. The MSCI Spain index is up nearly 30%. Investors have been eager to buy into the country's utility sector, with Endesa shares up nearly 60% in a complicated takeover battle featuring Germany's E.On and Spanish peers Gas Natural and Acciona. With the strongest economy in the euro zone, however, even shares of companies on the acquisition trail - Spanish banks BBVA , Banco Santander Central Hispano and telecoms giant Telefonica - are each up more than 20%. Not many signs that either the deal environment or the broader economy is slowing, but Deutsche Bank recently pointed out that mortgage demand is waning. American investors seeing the downturn in the US housing market know too well what that can mean. Norway's shares have climbed 28%, with this week's deal between energy heavyweights Norsk Hydro and Statoil giving a further boost to the country's performance. The deal to combine the energy operations has boosted Norsk Hydro's shares by 36% this year. But investors haven't just focused on the energy sector. Telenor has climbed 77%, as it hasn't been ravaged by competition as much as other European telecommunications services rivals. Fish farmer Pan Fish has done even better, rising 144%. Portuguese shares have climbed 27% this year, according to MSCI. Altri, a conglomerate in the forest and energy industries, has jumped 151% on the back of surging pulp prices, and bank BPI has climbed 54% as Portugal's top bank, BCP, is trying to buy it. In line with the rally in the European utilities sector, Electridad de Portugal has jumped 44%. If there's one risk, it's that stocks in the country are more expensive than elsewhere in Europe. According to figures from Santander, Portuguese large-cap trade on 16.5 times 2007 earnings, compared to 15.8 in Spain, 13.4 in Germany and 12.8 in Italy. Irish stocks have improved 26%, according to MSCI. An increased appetite for cider has lifted shares of C&C Group some 123%. Building products group Kingspan is up 70%, and CRH, the heavyweight building materials group, has climbed another 15% this year. Recent results from leading Irish banks, including Anglo Irish Bank, suggest the Irish economy still has plenty of room to grow. Danish stocks are up 21%, despite difficulties for shipping conglomerate A.P. Moller-Maersk. Vestas Wind Systems has been a standout, with the alternative energy stock up some 116% as countries increasingly look to wind power. Though 22% of Denmark's electricity is supplied via wind power, worldwide that stands at just 0.7%, according to ABN Amro statistics. Carlsberg shares are up 59%, helped by Russia's taste for beer. Danish consumer and industrial confidence are all around five-year highs, and the low interest rates could fuel more takeover activity, some say. (MarketWatch)