"When America sneezes, Europe catches the cold."
Legend has it that this saying originated after the Wall Street Crash of 1929; the U.S. crash sent many European economies into even larger depressions than our own.
But if the recent events of Feb. 27, 2007, told us anything, it's that America isn't the only market capable of spreading an economic cold anymore. The 9% drop in the Chinese market that Tuesday prompted a near 4% drop in the S&P 500; the U.K. FTSE 100 fell 2%, and the Indian BSE slid 4%.
Even smaller global events have had major impacts on the markets. Just three years ago, an uprising in Nigeria sent oil prices over $50 for the first time and roiled the global markets for a few days.
The development toward highly correlated global markets has become a reality in a very short period of time. According to a recent article in The Economist, international markets have revealed a 95% correlation with the S&P 500 -- this figure once sat as low as 40% in the mid-1990s!
In other words, the global markets are dancing in step more than ever before, so while adding international stocks to your portfolio can still lead to big returns, the days of getting a "free lunch" from international diversity may be coming to an end.
Why this is a good thing
The Economist cites various phenomena that are contributing to converging global markets. Among them: reduced controls on capital, a larger number of cross-border listings, and multinational mergers.
In just the past few months alone, some of the world's biggest stock exchanges have announced agreements or mergers to integrate trading systems. NYSE Group
Furthermore, many companies are listed in multiple global markets in order to gain access to foreign capital. Just as some foreign companies appear on U.S. exchanges like China Life Insurance
Finally, a few major international mergers have taken place in the past five years, including Alcatel-Lucent
You can still profit
These signs seem to point toward one global stock market, where an investor can trade any stock from anywhere in the world at any time. Even though the "free lunch" benefits of international diversification dwindles as this becomes a reality, the growth potential of international stocks remains promising, particularly in emerging markets such as Taiwan and South Africa.
The secret is finding these companies early in their growth stages. Early investors in Chinese wireless community NetEase.com, for instance, have seen their shares appreciate 10,000% since March 2002. The thing is, NetEase's rise wasn't a miracle -- it showed the signs of a strong, promising company in 2002. With a founder/CEO with significant ownership at the helm, a strong balance sheet, and a wide market opportunity, NetEase was well positioned for growth, and indeed, it has done just that.
Need some help finding a few good international stocks? Fool senior analyst Bill Mann and the Motley Fool Global Gains team are a great resource -- they take the time to explain the intricacies of the global markets and teach you what to look for and what to avoid.
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Todd Wenning wholeheartedly recommends Empire Records to any serious fan of '90s movies. He does not own any shares mentioned in this article. NVIDIA is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. NYSE Group and NetEase are Rule Breakers choices. The Fool's disclosure policy can't wait for Rex Manning Day.