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













Hong Kong






United Kingdom


South Africa


United States









Seeing these numbers might have you thinking, "Now is the time to get in," and you can by buying the indexes of pretty much any country: iShares MSCI Singapore (NYSE:EWS), iShares MSCI Hong Kong (NYSE:EWH), or iShares MSCI Taiwan (NYSE:EWT), 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. I can help you find the best ones."

This advice, proffered by nearly any commissioned financial advisor with whom you might speak, 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 of folks who make their own mutual fund purchases. It shows that this country's financial advisors truly cost investors.

Here are the returns for 1996 through 2002:

Financial advisors:


Individual investors:


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. It 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 want to take a rational approach to earning potentially substantial rewards through international investing. Of all the categories of mutual funds, international funds have the highest annual fees and expenses. Moreover, the sales and management fees of mutual funds explain virtually all of 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 Nortel Networks (NYSE:NT), TD Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD),, and -- worthy companies, perhaps, but not at that moment in time. They just had great trailing results. Today, juiced by returns from China Petroleum & Chemical, Comtech Group (NASDAQ:COGO), American Oriental Bioengineering (NYSE:AOB), and many others, the China funds continue 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 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 Jan. 17, 2007. It has been updated.

Bill Barker does not own shares of any companies mentioned. Priceline and are Stock Advisor picks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.