The best stock. The best fund. The best exchange-traded fund. As investors, we're constantly on the lookout for the best opportunities.

Just as we salivate to crown the year's best-dressed celebrity or the best pizza in Manhattan, we drool over charts and tables of stocks that surged hundreds or thousands of percentage points in 12 months. That way, we can dream about finding the next stock that will repeat or beat that performance in the coming year.

But rather than just looking at the story of individual stocks that soared last year, investors can learn more by looking at markets in general for the lessons they teach.

Looking back at the best of 2006
Comparing world markets is tricky because it involves adjusting for currency fluctuations and inflation, which is never straightforward. Thankfully, the Motley Fool Global Gains team has developed a model to compare world markets on an even basis. With a common reference, yearly and monthly comparisons help investors see just what regions of the world are flourishing or decaying.

What they found was amazing. Surprisingly, the United States doesn't even crack the top 10 for 2006. Neither do many other advanced, industrial nations we commonly equate with economic growth. So, which international stock exchange actually tops the list?

(Opening the envelope ...)

Zimbabwe. Yes, you read correctly. Zimbabwe's market returned a stunning 912% in 2006 -- in a single year. But is this real? Can investors actually realize this kind of gain?

This is where the tricky part comes in. The dramatic return of Zimbabwe's exchange is partly the product of a restricted currency value in the face of hyperinflation. The inflation and currency chaos have also been behind extended periods of negative returns in the Zimbabwe market. So, no, investors shouldn't expect Zimbabwe (or any other stock exchange, for that matter) to deliver achievable organic growth at this level.

But other, more stable markets are booming. Nos. 2 and 3 on the Global Gains list, Venezuela and China, more than doubled in the year, up 156% and 130%, respectively, and some of these regions have grown at extremely high rates for years.

For the U.S. markets to grow at rates this high, you'd have to see hundreds of high-growth success stories such as Quality Systems (NASDAQ:QSII), up 128% over the past three years, and Atheros Communications (NASDAQ:ATHR), up 207% in the past 24 months. Even American Eagle Outfitters  (NYSE:AEO) and Pool (NASDAQ:POOL) -- posting more than 29% and 22% compound annual growth, respectively, over the past 10 years -- are too rare in the United States. Much of the U.S. market is made up of slower-growing or cyclical industries.

But many of the industries that show slow growth in the United States are booming internationally. For example, Indian financial institutions HDFC Bank and ICICI Bank (NYSE:IBN) have returned 46% and 53% per year on average, respectively, over the past three years. These are stable, multibillion-dollar corporations, and companies such as China Netcom (NYSE:CN) benefit from fertile, untapped markets that are more saturated in the United States. The Chinese telecommunications service provider gained 70% in 2006, atop a 22% return in 2005.

Wrapping up 2007              
Early in the year, I made a prediction that the United States would not be the top market of 2007. I even committed to eating a pair of dirty socks if I were wrong. Well, with little more than a month to go, I'm feeling pretty good about my wager, seeing as how the iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index -- an ETF that broadly tracks the Chinese market -- has already vaulted 60% versus only 3% for the S&P. I'll even double down on my dirty sock bet that such a gap won't close before year's end, either. 

But investors should already be looking out on the horizon for next year's top market. And not only the top markets but also the best companies to own within them. Our premier team of Motley Fool Global Gains international analysts is doing just that -- scouring the globe for the best international companies with solid management and transparent finances for your consideration.

In fact, they leave for Latin America on a research trip next week to do just that. Get all of their reports and updates live from the field simply by providing your email address in the field below.

This article was originally published as "The Best Market in 2006" on Feb. 14, 2007. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Dave Mock doesn't sweat, he glistens. He owns shares of Quality Systems. The Motley Fool owns shares of American Eagle. The longtime Fool is also the author of The Qualcomm Equation. American Eagle and Quality Systems are Stock Advisor recommendations. Atheros is a Hidden Gems recommendation. HDFC Bank is a Global Gains recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.