It seems that for the second summer in a row, the stock market is going to be at the mercy of the European debt crisis.
As I see it, there are three ways this could play out. First, politicians could come together, swallow their pride, and agree to help one another -- making their fates even more interdependent.
Second, the stronger European countries, tired of propping up the weaker ones, could kick habitual offenders out of the eurozone, essentially causing a couple of countries to default.
Or, most likely, the problem could be kicked down the road to be dealt with in the summer of 2013.
Make no mistake about it: If you have the power of foresight, you could end up being a big winner based in Europe. Just last week, fellow Fool Alex Dumortier made a compelling case for Spanish Banco Santander (NYSE: STD ) , arguing that it was a cut above the rest of Spanish banks. Should Europe solve its fiscal problems together, Alex's call will likely be a successful one.
But for investors who want exposure to emerging markets without the risk that comes with Europe, there are solid alternatives. Today we'll look to Latin America and examine three companies that deserve your attention. Read to the end, and I'll offer up a special free report on our top stock for 2012.
Arcos Dorados (NYSE: ARCO )
With a name that's Spanish for "Golden Arches," this company has the exclusive right to own and operate franchises of McDonald's in Latin America and the Caribbean. Currently, the company has 1,800 stores situated in 20 countries. If the company can operate even half as efficiently as its parent to the north, there's an enormous opportunity here.
Currently, the stock is trading about 50% off the highs it hit last September. This is largely due to the fact that its Caribbean and northern regions are struggling to earn a profit. It's concerning to see the Caribbean division losing money after years of operating profits -- but I think much of the downside is already priced into the stock.
Over the past three years, revenues have grown at a 12% clip. Same-store sales in Brazil, the company's largest market, were up 9.3% last year. Even more encouraging, sales in other South American countries were up a whopping 30% in 2011. At today's prices, shares trade hands for about 21 times estimated 2012 earnings.
PriceSmart (Nasdaq: PSMT )
I called out this company, essentially the Costco of Latin America, as one of my core holdings last summer. Having lived in Costa Rica for close to a year, I got to see firsthand how crowded the parking lots were with both locals and gringos alike. The warehouse club is one of the only places to get certain goods in Latin America, and its business model isn't nearly as common there as it is in America.
Since last year, the company has returned 31%, handily beating the market by more than 26 percentage points. Comparable-store sales picked up as predicted last month, showing a 13.2% increase.
There are two key concepts to keep in mind with PriceSmart. First, the company is intentionally pushing down margins to drive traffic. Based on the comparable-store sales mentioned above, that strategy is working. Second, the company is slowly expanding into South America, a move that could open it to huge markets in the future.
MercadoLibre (Nasdaq: MELI )
Finally, in MercadoLibre, investors have exposure to the eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) , PayPal, Amazon, and Craigslist of Latin America -- all wrapped into one. In fact, eBay tried to break into the Latin American market years ago but was unsuccessful in breaking MercadoLibre's stranglehold. Instead of trying to beat the company, eBay joined forces with it: As of the end of 2011, eBay owned 18.4% of MercadoLibre.
Last quarter, revenue increased a whopping 36% for the company, while net income grew 40%. Perhaps more importantly for the long-term growth of the company, MercadoPago -- the company's version of PayPal -- had an 88% uptick in transactions.
Despite this, Wall Street was disappointed with the results and sent shares lower. That's good news for you. Even though shares trade hands at a hefty 38 times earnings, the company's market cap of just $3.2 billion reflects the fact that there's still plenty of room to grow.
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I'm confident enough that these three companies will outperform the market that I'm making bullish CAPScalls on all three in my All-Star CAPS portfolio. But if you want to know which of these three is the very best, then you need to check out "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012." Inside this special free report, you'll see which of these three earned the honors and why. Get your copy of the report today, absolutely free!