Invest Defensively: Look Abroad

This is a brutal time for investors. Since the start of 2008, the S&P 500 has lost more than half its value. Harvard and Yale had losses of more than 20% in their highly esteemed endowments -- since June. Hedge funds, if they aren't closing down, are liquidating rapidly to cash out disillusioned investors.

All this turmoil has led to a massive flight to safety. Investors have abandoned once-hot emerging markets en masse for the safety of America. Treasuries are yielding next to nothing because investors are willing to take no return in exchange for the perceived stability of U.S. government debt.

But they have it exactly backwards.

Comfort food
In times like these, equity investors traditionally turn to blue-chip stocks for comfort -- household names like Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) and General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) that make the stuff people buy no matter how high unemployment goes.

Blue chips are respected for their strong brand names, solid operations and an ability to grow year after year. In the past 15 years, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) has increased revenues every year (at an average of 11% per year) while boosting its operating margin from 17% to 25%.

And that’s despite the 2001 and current recessions.

How can a company with more than $60 billion in annual sales put up these types of numbers? The foresight of the company's talented management team, who realized that growth would have to come from foreign markets, is a key factor.

Pack your bags
Acquisitions and product expansion have been a big part of Johnson & Johnson's success, but so has geographic expansion. Over the last five years, sales in the U.S. only grew an average of 5%, while international sales compounded at 14%. The percentage of Johnson & Johnson's sales that come from outside the U.S. grew from 40% to 49%.

And Johnson & Johnson isn't alone in this. General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) has seen international sales rise from 42% of total sales to 53% of sales since 2003. Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) , the world's largest manufacturer of heavy machinery, has received more than half of its sales from foreign markets for years.

Go where the growth is
These and many other blue-chip companies are turning to foreign markets to supply their growth. While the U.S. remains the largest economy in the world, our growth prospects are relatively modest -- and, at least in the short term, negative. Meanwhile, globalization has provided countries like India, China, Turkey, and Chile with the opportunity to launch their economies into the 21st century, and they have been taking advantage of it.

Since 2003, the United States has experienced average real GDP growth of just 2.5% per year. Over the same time frame, that figure was 10.5% for China, 8.3% for India, 6.0% for Turkey, and 4.7% for Chile.

It’s counterintuitive to think of international investing as defensive investing, but that’s exactly what this economic data suggests.

Hold on a second
Admittedly, the global economic slowdown will hurt growth, but everything is relative. While America's GDP growth is headed into negative territory, the IMF is estimating next year's GDP growth in emerging economies will merely slow to around 3%, with some countries -- such as China and India -- expected to grow 5% or more. It’s no wonder that in these tough times, companies continue to scour for profits outside U.S. borders.

While the blue-chip companies mentioned above do provide some exposure to the rapidly growing markets of the world, with market caps already measured in the hundreds of billions, they don't provide the tremendous upside potential boasted by the smaller, lesser-known companies that call emerging markets home. During its aforementioned outstanding 15-year period, Johnson & Johnson's stock provided shareholders with fantastic returns. However, over the past five years, returns have basically been flat.

Meanwhile, even with the decline of the emerging markets at the end of 2008, companies like Motley Fool Global Gains picks Sasol (NYSE: SSL  ) , a South African alternative energy company, and HDFC Bank (NYSE: HDB  ) , the second-largest private bank in India, have each provided five-year returns greater than 140%. That’s because they are smaller and more focused on developing markets than their multinational counterparts. And their markets have years, or even decades, of strong growth ahead of them.

So, take a page from your favorite blue-chip companies and add some international flavor to your investment portfolio. To get a head start, check out all the Global Gains recommendations by signing up for a 30-day, risk-free trial.

Nate Weisshaar will only use Johnson's No More Tangles shampoo on his luscious locks, but does not own any shares of the companies mentioned above. Johnson & Johnson and Sasol are Income Investor recommendations. Coca-Cola is an Inside Value recommendation. Sasol and HDFC Bank are Global Gains recommendations. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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