Many investors dream of a portfolio full of blue chips -- big, established, proven leaders in their fields. But while most people tend to limit their search for these swanky stocks to the United States, a surprising number of top-notch companies now come from abroad.
Blue chips tend to be household names, such as the 30 that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average ("the Dow") and many of the 500 in the S&P 500. Before we talk about foreign blue chips, it might help to understand what makes all blue chips compelling:
- They're big and dominant, usually thanks to competitive strengths such as economies of scale, strong brands, and mastery over distribution channels. Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC ) size and power, for example, let the company spend a much smaller fraction of its revenue on research and development than its competitors, supporting higher margins.
- They tend to pay significant dividends, which often increase over time. Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) recently offered a 3.3% yield, and it has hiked its payout by about 12% annually over the past five years.
- They're generally reliable, with long records of revenue and earnings growth and diversified products and services. Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) has seen earnings rise in all but four years since the 1980s.
These traits of winning domestic blue chips can also signal greatness in their foreign counterparts, which offer valuable diversification by exposing your portfolio to other economies. You would not want to make all your investments in a single industry; similarly, you don't want to concentrate your entire portfolio on a single nation's economy.
You won't be settling for smaller potatoes, either. In Fortune's latest "Global 500" ranking of the world's largest companies, only four of the top 10 were American -- three oil companies and Wal-Mart. The company at the top of the list is based in the Netherlands: Royal Dutch Shell.
With that in mind, here are two ideas combining blue-chip solidity with international reach.
Brazilian oil giant Petroleo Brasiliero (NYSE: PBR ) rakes in more than $100 billion in annual sales, and sports a market cap of roughly $170 billion. That's more than Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , which recently totaled $160 billion, and more than half the value of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , whose $310 billion market cap is America's largest.
Petrobras offers financial reliability, with revenue and earnings growth averaging more than 10% over the past five years. It also boasts competitive strength from its deepwater drilling expertise and massive oil reserves. As our Motley Fool Income Investor analysts noted when they recommended the stock a few years ago, "... the company's proven reserves are so enormous that it could run for 15 years without adding a single barrel of oil, and it could produce for 23 to 30 years if all its possible and probable reserves are counted." Petrobras' reserves oil and natural gas totaled some 12 billion oil-equivalent barrels as of the end of 2009, putting it behind ExxonMobil's 15 billion, but ahead of Chevron's 11 billion.
Petrobras' dividend isn't the steepest around, but its stock has been a great performer, averaging gains of more than 30% annually over the past eight years. While ExxonMobil and Chevron set annual dividend rates in advance, Petrobras announces a payout twice a year in accordance with earnings. That dividend has generally occupied the 3% to 5% range, compared with ExxonMobil's recent 2.5% and Chevron's 3.5%.
Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT ) is a huge food company with operations around the globe. While its dominance might seem attractive, critics fear that the company has stumbled with its too-expensive acquisition of Cadbury, and the sale of its lucrative frozen-pizza business to Nestle (OTC: NSRGY.PK). Indeed, that Swiss-based company far outshadows Kraft in the realm of global food.
Kraft owns such big brand names as Jell-O, Oscar Mayer, Nabisco, Oreo, Planters, Stove Top, and Velveeta. But Nestle is no slouch, either, with Gerber, Hot Pockets, Lean Cuisine, Stouffer's, Deer Park, Poland Spring, Coffee Mate, Dreyer's, Drumstick, Häagen-Dazs, Nescafe, PowerBar, Kit Kat, Jenny Craig, Alpo, Friskies, and Purina -- to name several.
Such brands give Nestle competitive strengths and dependable revenue. Its scale and position as one of the world's largest food companies also mean that food retailers cannot ignore the company. Nestle also hosts one of the world's largest food research and development departments, helping the company develop new businesses. Nestle has hiked its dividend at an annual average rate of 13% over the past 15 years, while maintaining consistently high profitability -- yet another testament to its financial reliability.
Despite their massive size and dominant performance, these global stocks occasionally trade at attractive prices. Nestle sported a recent price-to-earnings ratio of 11, below its five-year average of 15 -- an attractive quality for a company with stable, profitable growth and a 3.2% dividend yield. Petrobras recently traded for an equally tempting P/E of 9.
Fools, you'd be smart to include international offerings in your portfolio, especially if fluctuations in the dollar or weakness in the U.S. economy hurt domestic stocks. Global blue chips offer a great way to diversify, and some of the best chances to earn terrific returns. Just make sure you're paying a fair price for stable businesses with lasting competitive advantages and reliable dividends.
If you're skittish about unfamiliar companies in countries you don't know too well, our Motley Fool Global Gains newsletter might be able to help. You can access our entire archive of previous picks when you try it free for 30 days.
Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Wal-Mart. UnitedHealth Group and Wal-Mart Stores are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. UnitedHealth Group is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Petroleo Brasileiro is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of and has written puts on Oracle. The Fool owns shares of UnitedHealth Group. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.