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. 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
Comparing world markets is tricky, because it involves adjusting for currency fluctuations and inflation -- never a straightforward process. Thankfully, the Motley Fool Global Gains team has developed a model to compare world markets on a more even basis, helping investors see just what regions of the world are flourishing or decaying.

The results are amazing. The United States comes nowhere near the top five markets for 2007. Neither do many other advanced, industrial nations we commonly equate with economic growth. So which international market currently tops the list?

The envelope, please
The winner is Bangladesh, with a whopping 126% return last year. But most investors haven't a clue where Bangladesh is, let alone how to invest in the country.  

The political turmoil in Bangladesh also makes all but the most risk-tolerant investors wary of the region to begin with. And the early stages of growth in Bangladesh have just as good a chance of reversing course as they do continuing higher, so investors shouldn't just jump at the best market determined by any one year's time frame. But other, more stable markets are booming, too. China and other, less-hyped regions like Peru and Nigeria have also performed well.

For the U.S. markets to grow at rates this high, you'd have to see hundreds of high-growth success stories like Crocs (Nasdaq: CROX) or credit card master MasterCard (NYSE: MA), which are up more than 175% and 380% in past 18 months, respectively. Even Genzyme (Nasdaq: GENZ) and Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD) -- posting more than 19% and 34% 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 mature growth in the U.S. are booming internationally. For example, Chinese wireless service provider China Unicom (NYSE: CHU) and telecom firm China Telecom (NYSE: CHA) have returned 48% and 30% annually, respectively, over the past three years. These are large, multibillion-dollar corporations tapping new regions of growth. Companies such as Brazilian supermarket and department-store operator Companhia Brasileira de Distribuicao (NYSE: CBD), up 192% in the past five years, also benefit from growing economies in sectors that are more saturated in the United States.

Wrapping up 2007
Early last year, I predicted that the United States would not be the top market of 2007. I even committed to eating a pair of dirty socks if I was wrong. Having easily won the wager, any fear of a smelly cotton encounter is long gone, though I admit it was a pretty safe bet. And I'm sure making the same prediction for 2008 is not much of a risk on my part, either.

Investors should already be looking to the horizon for next year's top markets -- and 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, advisor Bill Mann and his team just returned from a research trip to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. You can read all of his updates and stock ideas from that trip by clicking here and joining Global Gains free for 30 days.

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 no shares of companies mentioned here. The longtime Fool is also the author of The Qualcomm Equation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.