Investors were pretty sharp in 2006. As the S&P shot ahead 15% and the Dow set new highs, there were plenty of gains to go around.

My head was pretty inflated. I had a nice 18% appreciation from my shares in Starbucks. Kudos for my investment in ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) too, up 39%.

But my personal bubble burst when I saw what I could have gained. You may feel a little inadequate as well.

The big let down
Consider an investor who found her way into four of the most popular and better-performing stocks in the S&P 500 last year:

U.S. Market Company

2006 Return



Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO)


Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD)


Boeing (NYSE:BA)


Not too shabby. But take a gander at some large, well-known international stocks and how they did:

International Market Company

2006 Return

China Life Insurance


Millicom International Cellular


China Mobile (NYSE:CHL)


Core Labs (NYSE:CLB)


Of course, one could stack the table with any stocks to alter the comparison. But in general, great opportunities exist outside the United States. In fact, for every market-beating investment in a U.S.-based company, I'll guess that I can find an international stock that did better.

Why am I so confident? Because on average, the U.S. market isn't growing at nearly the pace of many foreign markets. Since September 2002, the U.S. market's return was handily beaten by 19 countries. And not by a nose, either -- try Hungary (up 268%) and Austria (up 375%).

It's out there -- go get it
If you truly want to own the best stocks in the world this year, you have to look globally.

But don't just buy anything. Look for the same characteristics you'd want in any U.S.-based investment, and vet your picks even more closely -- added political and economic risks demand that you do so.

If you want a cheat sheet of good foreign stocks, check out our newly formed international investing service, Motley Fool Global Gains. We have individual stock ideas, country-by-country analyses, and plenty of resources to help you become a better international investor. To see the depth of research packed into each issue, just click here for free 30 days of access to the service.

Dave Mock is a serial bubble burster and compulsive party pooper. He owns shares of ExxonMobil and Starbucks. The longtime Fool is also the author of The Qualcomm Equation. Starbucks is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.