If you're not growing, you're dying, according to more than a few investment theorists. That's one reason so many investors are preoccupied with growth, particularly when it comes to countries. No measure of aggregate growth garners more attention than gross domestic product, but we don't want just any GDP growth, we want the right amount of growth.
Take China, today's Goldilocks of economic growth. The World Bank expects China to post GDP growth of 9.5% in 2010, which means China will likely pass Japan for second position behind the United States. What's more, this newfound girth isn't expected to slow China anytime soon. The World Bank expects another 8.7% to be tacked onto 2010's totals in 2011.
Impressive, considering China's economy grew 8.7% in 2009 and 9% in 2008 (on average). U.S. GDP, in comparison, shrank 2.4% in 2009 after growing just 0.4% in 2008 (on average). The World Bank expects U.S. GDP to increase 2.5% in 2010 and stabilize at a relatively modest 2.7% in 2011.
Numbers aren't facts
Or maybe China's GDP isn't so impressive if you're an investor. I don't read too much into GDP figures. An aggregate economy involves such a complex mixture of inputs and outputs and wants and desires that arriving at an accurate measure of the welfare of an entire system or a general level of anything is impossible.
Even if you could accurately measure GDP, it wouldn't correlate to profitable investment opportunities. Sure, the numbers suggest China is growing faster than the United States in the aggregate, but most of us don't invest in the aggregate. And if we did, we still wouldn't extract an advantage.
We all suspect China is growing faster than most G-7 economies, but the aggregate investable assets have been bid up to reflect current expectations. You make money investing in the unknown, not the known.
Let freedom ring
I prefer bottom-up to top-down anyway, but this approach is more practical the more free an economy is. When people think of economic freedom, the United States pops to mind, and rightfully so; this country has an extended history of relative freedom, which has produced the world's greatest long-term growth companies: Coca Cola
But today, the United States doesn't even rank in the top five of economically free countries, according to the Heritage Foundation's 2010 Index of Economic Freedom. (The U.S. ranks eighth).
Ironically, given China's 140th-place ranking, Hong Kong is No. 1. (As an aside, Hong Kong's modus during its salad days of the 1960s was to produce a paucity of government statistics. When asked the key thing poor countries should do, former Financial Secretary Sir John Cowperthwaite remarked, "They should abolish the office of national statistics.") The next six, in descending order, are Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland, and Canada.
I rank freedom much more important than growth, for the simple reason that freedom combined with the invisible hand will always produce growth. Therefore, I like firms that operate in freer environs, such as the following seven firms. They are leading, large-cap companies headquartered in and with major operations in the top seven economies in Heritage Foundation's index. Just as important, they're readily available to U.S.-domiciled investors.
Company: Hong Kong Exchange & Clearing
Business: Stock exchange and securities clearing.
Market Cap: $18.3 billion.
Company: Wilmar International
Business: Agriculture, fertilizer, and biofuels.
Market Cap: $29.6 billion.
Company: BHP Billiton
Business: Minerals, oil, and gas.
Market Cap: $217.2 billion.
Company: Telecom Corp. of New Zealand
Business: Telecommunications and information technology.
Market Cap: $2.8 billion.
Company: CRH PLC
Business: Building materials.
Market Cap: $17.6 billion.
Business: Pharmaceuticals and health care.
Market Cap: $122.1 billion.
Company: Canadian National Railway
Business: Railroads and transportation services.
Market Cap: $28.2 billion.
Until the growth countries du jour – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – lift themselves into the top 20 of economically free countries (none crack the top 100), I question the sustainability of their growth, and the growth potential of the companies domiciled there. That's not to say that free economies aren't growing economies, they are. They just tend to grow unpredictably, organically, and spontaneously. And that's a good thing. The best investments opportunities always arise where least expected.
Fool contributor Stephen Mauzy, CFA, owns shares of General Electric and DuPont. He's the author of the upcoming book Wealth Portfolio. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value and Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Canadian National Railway is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Novartis AG is a Motley Fool Global Gains pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.