For beginning investors, the thought of researching and picking stocks from the U.S. can be intimidating enough. When you expand that scope to include the world's best stocks from dozens of different countries, the task can seem downright impossible. If you realize the importance of owning international stocks, but lack the time to translate foreign-language financial statements, there's a simpler way to tap into the profits available from investing internationally.
ETFs and small-cap investing
Over the past couple of days, I've examined how investors can use exchange-traded funds to gain access to both large-cap and small-cap stocks domestically. Yet given the unique challenges that the U.S. economy faces right now, many investors are looking abroad to try to find more solid growth, with the potential for a greater upside, than they're finding at home right now.
In particular, foreign stocks have a number of characteristics you won't necessarily find in the U.S. stock market:
- Greater growth potential. Although signs of improvement are appearing throughout the developed world, many fully industrialized countries are still struggling to get back to positive economic growth. Meanwhile, countries like China and India are still growing at fairly strong rates.
- Escape from the dollar. Many investors are increasingly uncomfortable with the prospects for the U.S. dollar going forward. A lack of fiscal restraint, combined with low interest rates, has put pressure on the dollar's value over the past year. International investments can help shelter you from losses when the dollar drops.
- The best of the best. Arbitrarily limiting yourself to a single country necessarily means accepting second-best investments in some areas. Why not look for the best stocks in the entire world?
To get these advantages and more, it makes sense to look for ways to invest internationally. Fortunately, ETFs make it easy to get whatever exposure you'd like to foreign investments.
Around the world with a single investment
The most followed benchmark of international stocks is the MSCI EAFE index, which includes stocks of 21 different countries, including Japan, the U.K., and Germany. Through ETFs like the iShares MSCI EAFE Index (EFA), you can get instant access to stocks like BP (NYSE: BP ) and BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP ) , with a fairly broad mix of investments in different countries and various sectors.
Yet the big gap in the MSCI EAFE is the complete exclusion of emerging markets such as China, Brazil, and India, which have exploded onto the global scene over the past decade. To fill in that gap, you can invest in specialized emerging-markets ETFs, such as the Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock ETF (VWO). There, you'll find stocks like Petroleo Brasileiro (NYSE: PBR ) , Vale (NYSE: VALE ) , and America Movil (NYSE: AMX ) among the top holdings. The Latin American exposure that emerging markets ETFs have certainly helped their performance in 2009.
Pick a country ... any country
A combination of a developed ETF and an emerging-markets ETF may be sufficient to give you the international exposure you want in your portfolio. But if you're interested in focusing your investment efforts on a particular region or single country, you'll find dozens of ETFs that are specifically tailored to your needs.
For instance, many have identified China as the greatest investing opportunity of the 21st century. Yet while broad-based emerging-markets funds will give you some Chinese stocks, they only invest a portion of their assets in them -- and those stocks tend to be the largest, most followed companies like China Mobile.
A specific country fund like iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index (FXI) gives you a portfolio that's composed entirely of big Chinese stocks. Or if you prefer smaller, less followed stocks, the Claymore/AlphaShares China Small Cap ETF (HAO) includes interesting up-and-coming companies like Ctrip.com (Nasdaq: CTRP ) and NetEase.com (Nasdaq: NTES ) .
You'll find similar ETFs available for dozens of countries around the world. And no matter which one meets your needs, they all come with the ease of use that has made ETFs so popular. You just need a brokerage account to get started.
Let your money see the world
Investing internationally can seem scary, but it doesn't have to be. Thanks to exchange-traded funds, you can own the world's top stocks simply and easily.