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IBM: International Investing Starts at Home

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Every portfolio needs a bit of international exposure. The market is abuzz with growth in emerging markets like Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. The Dow Jones (INDEX: ^DJI) has moved backwards over the past five years, but many foreign instruments actually made money.

The Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets (AMEX: VWO  ) , for example, has gained 13% over that term despite losing more than 40% of its value in the global market meltdown of 2008. The fund's five largest holdings include Samsung Electronics, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (NYSE: TSM  ) , and China Mobile (NYSE: CHL  ) , which keeps its finger on the pulse of the industry-changing technology smartphone trend from several angles.

But guess who else gives you both high technology and international exposure in a single stock? Try IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) .

Have your apple pie and eat it too
That's right -- I'm talking about Big Blue as a global investment. The company's full name doesn't start with "International" for nothing. The U.S. may be IBM's largest market, but the North and South Americas added up to just 36% of revenues in 2010. An increasing amount of that business happens south of our borders, too. U.S. sales grew just 4% year-over-year in the latest reported quarter while Latin America gained 17%.

Even Europe, which gives investors hiccups and heartburn on a daily basis, is an opportunity for IBM. Last quarter, Spain ordered 9% more IBM stuff than the previous year. That's the home of Flamenco and Paella, where Moody's has slashed the sovereign debt rating three times in 13 months and banks are running for cover. But IBM's servers and software are going strong in that space, economic troubles notwithstanding.

There's more to the international exposure than just another growth avenue. For example, IBM's effective tax rate in 2010 was just 25% (rather than the 35% U.S. corporate tax levy) thanks to smart management of foreign profits. Moreover, IBM uses flexible hedging strategies to limit the damage from negative currency moves while amplifying the good ones. When appropriate, currency hedging even includes local sales offensives when the American dollar looks weak.

Wait -- isn't that a broken stock?
It's true that IBM shares took a fall this week, swooning as much as 5% on an unimpressive third-quarter report.

But one slow quarter in the midst of the most uncertain technology market I've ever seen is not evidence of a broken business. So what if American sales barely ticked up? Uncle Sam and friends will come back when budget pressures start to abate. Meanwhile, the BRIC bloc saw 17% annual growth and IBM's margins expanded. A lesser tech giant might be tempted to chase sales with heavy discounts -- but not Big Blue.

IBM provides a masterful template for other companies to follow. It's no surprise that business software titan Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) is trying to emulate IBM's integrated technologies model from the software side while networking stalwart Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) does the same from a hardware perspective. It's a proven success model that's worthy of respect and imitation. Oh, but it hasn't quite copied IBM's international success yet -- fully 43% of Oracle's sales last year came straight from the domestic market; for Cisco, it's 50%.

The Armonk giant's combination of fat margins and strong growth is unequaled in its sector. The century-old tech giant is surprisingly nimble and may well be around for another hundred years. And don't forget about the modest but rock-steady dividend payments. This is the kind of stock you buy as a young investor and draw dividend payments from in retirement. Then you'll pass the shares on to your grandkids.

And this week's modest discount just gives you a slightly lower cost base for those long-haul returns and payouts. Fellow Fool Jeremy Philips calls it "time arbitrage" when the Street sells great, timeless companies on the cheap because of short-term concerns. I just call it a buy-in window.

Remember the market-beating Vanguard Emerging Markets fund from the start of this story? IBM crushed it by doubling in five years, in no small part thanks to international growth.

Want more great ideas on foreign investments? Check out this special report on "3 ETFs Set to Soar During the Recovery."In it, you'll find another way to ride the BRIC bloc. Grab your copy right now -- it's free!

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Cisco Systems, IBM, Oracle, and China Mobile. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of China Mobile, Moody's, and Cisco Systems and writing puts in Moody's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can go over Anders' holdings and a concise bio, follow him on Twitter or Google+, or check out our Foolish disclosure policy.

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