Last year's international stock markets offered returns that dwarfed what the U.S. markets returned. What's more, countries at the top of the list beat anything that the broad U.S. markets have ever provided. Take a look:

Market

2006 Return

China

107.0%

Russia

51.0%

India

49.1%

Brazil

39.5%

Mexico

37.6%

Hong Kong

34.5%

Germany

32.59%

France

31.0%

United Kingdom

26.5%

South Africa

18.2%

United States

13.9%

Japan

5.2%

Israel

(6.4%)

Turkey

(10.5%)

Source: WSJ.com.

Seeing these numbers might have you thinking now is the time to get in. And you can, by buying the indexes: iSharesChina 25 Index (NYSE:FXI) or iShares MSCI Brazil (AMEX:EWZ), for example. But you'll also hear about another very, very popular way to go about it -- one that more people with more credentials and more years of experience will tell you.

And they are, almost certainly, dead wrong.

The answer that you are most likely to hear when talking to financial advisors about how to invest internationally is: "Buy some mutual funds. And I can help you find the best ones."

This advice, proffered by nearly any commissioned financial advisor you might speak to, is almost mathematically certain to result in your missing out on the promises of international investing.

A new study (link opens a PDF file), grippingly titled "Assessing the Costs and Benefits of Brokers in the Mutual Fund Industry," is the most detailed work ever conducted comparing the record of financial advisors with those who make their own mutual fund purchases. It shows that this country's financial advisors truly cost investors.

Here are the results for returns for 1996 through 2002:

Financial advisors:

2.9%

Individual investors:

6.6%

*Raw returns, net of all expenses.

Wow. Less than half? Really?

The study measured the results of literally trillions of dollars of mutual fund purchases and included participation by the best-known and most trusted names in the industry. The study concluded that brokers do not find better-performing funds than individuals, do not allocate assets among different asset classes better than individuals, and do not display fewer biases toward the "hot" stock than individuals.

This is true even if you don't count the fees of the brokers in the performance. In 2002 alone, investors lost about $40 billion to mutual fund sales and management fees.

These results are particularly troubling if you rationally want to get started earning the substantial potential rewards available through international investing today. Of all the categories of mutual funds, international funds have the highest annual fees and expenses. And the sales and management fees of mutual funds explain virtually all the difference between what you'll get on your own and what you'll get through a broker if you choose just average-performing stocks.

The "strong buy" recommendations from 1999 to 2001 were funds holding Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) and TD Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD) -- worthy companies, perhaps, but not at that moment in time. They just had great trailing results. Today, juiced by returns from Ctrip.com, China Petroleum & Chemical (NYSE:SNP), Sina (NASDAQ:SINA) and many others, the China funds are going to be the hot sell. They are today's most popular "strong buys."

You certainly want to be diversified into the exceptional international returns of the next decade -- but if history is any indication, brokers as a group simply won't help you find today's reasonably priced global opportunities. They're far more likely just to try to sell yesterday's winners. At Global Gains, we look at today's market very differently. Be our guest free for 30 days to see how a contrarian approach makes the most sense for your portfolio.

You can sample The Motley Fool's international-investing service, Global Gains, free of charge for 30 days. Click here to learn more.

This article was originally published on Jan. 17, 2007. It has been updated.

Bill Barker does not own shares of any companies mentioned. Sina is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Ctrip.com is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.