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The Stocks You Have to Own

The investing world has changed.

It used to be that if you owned stocks at all, you were pushing the envelope. At the beginning of the 20th century, just 200,000 Americans owned stocks.

Fast-forward a few decades, and you were cutting-edge if you invested without a broker.

Next it was small caps, options, commodities, ETFs, and, most recently, foreign stocks that set you apart from the crowd. You were hardcore if, in 2003, you could brag that you owned shares in India.

No more.

Party with midnight's children
As Acadian Asset Management CEO Churchill Franklin told The Wall Street Journal recently, "People don't fall out of their chairs anymore if you say that you invest in India. You're supposed to be there now."

That's right. You're supposed to be there.

Who forgot to RSVP?
In fact, you may not be. Less than 20% of U.S. stock ownership is in foreign holdings. And the foreign holdings that many of us have are likely in developed countries such as France or Japan.

Even fewer individual investors have any money invested at all in what the pros call "frontier markets" -- Bangladesh, for example.

And there's good reason for that. In 2006, investing in what turned out to be one of the 10 best countries would have forced investors to confront an array of political, economic, and environmental dangers. In fact, most individual investors probably should not be making obscure foreign investments alone.

So where does that leave us?

The emerging-markets party crasher
A host of mutual funds have tried to fill this void. One that the Journal mentions is DWS Global Thematic (SGQAX). Yet according to Morningstar, fully 13 of this fund's top 25 holdings are U.S.-based companies. That list includes Tyco (NYSE: TYC  ) , General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) , ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) , Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) , and Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) .

Sure, each of these companies does business internationally, but I would hardly classify any of them as frontier market growth opportunities.

But that's the rub when it comes to mutual funds. They'll advocate one strategy and then pursue a very different course when it comes to your money. What's worse, DWS Global will hit you with some pretty hefty fees for a fund that has nearly 40% of its assets parked in U.S. large caps.

The Foolish bottom line
You need to own international equities. That's an economic reality and the consensus among investors. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tailor your international exposure to fit your portfolio without picking your own stocks.

That's why we recently launched our Motley Fool Global Gains international investing service. Our goal is to help more investors get the international exposure they need along with the information they need to invest abroad successfully. You can see the four stocks we've recommended to date, along with a number of intriguing Wild Card picks free for 30 days. Just click here for more information.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. Tyco and Coke are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. No Fool is too cool for disclosure.

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