"We're like children in a candy shop."

Who said that, and what was he talking about? I'll give you a hint: It was a master investor, and he was talking about buying a small group of stocks. But before I can reveal the investor's identity and the precise stocks, I need to set the stage.

How much do you know about the global economy?
According to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the United States has been in a recession since December 2007. American stocks over that period of time -- paced by enormous declines in bellwethers such as Alcoa (NYSE:AA), Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), and Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) -- have fallen by 40% in aggregate. In fact, just one stock in the Dow Jones Index -- Wal-Mart -- has posted a positive return over that time frame.

Now, while the U.S. economy has receded (i.e., seen negative GDP growth), it looks as though China grew its GDP by 9% or so, India by around 7%, and Brazil by roughly 5% in 2008. Given those facts, and holding all other variables equal, we would expect that the stock markets in these countries would have far outperformed our own.

But although some have performed slightly better, that generally has not been the case.

Here's how it breaks down
In fact, Brazil's stocks are down 28% since December 2007, India's 42%, and China's 48%. Again, that's despite the healthy growth all three of these countries saw in 2008.

There is more to an investment's performance than the GDP growth rate of its home country. One must take into account valuation (emerging-market stocks were overvalued last year relative to their U.S. peers), risk (emerging-market stocks will be more volatile than their U.S. peers), and future outlook (emerging markets are expected to perform worse than the U.S. going forward).

Wait a second ...
If you're paying attention, your eyes ground to a halt upon reading the last bit of that last sentence. You may have even set to writing a nasty email to me that questioned my facts, sanity, and competence.

That's because economic growth in the world's emerging markets, though it will slow in 2009, is expected to continue to outpace that of the United States for many, many years to come. Of course, that divergence between the performance of emerging-market stocks and their outlook for the future prompted famed Templeton money manager Mark Mobius to tell Bloomberg that, when he and his team look at emerging-market stocks these days, "We're like children in a candy shop."

And that, dear Fools, was the reveal
See, emerging-market stocks have been oversold by investors who -- for whatever reason -- need safety. Perhaps they're professional investors seeing redemptions, individual investors who can't stomach additional losses, or any other kind of investor who doesn't want to worry these days about currency risk, political upheaval, unpredictable tax rates, or the myriad other concerns that keep global investors on their toes.

But current prices of global equities mean you're being more than compensated to take those risks, with the benefit of the tremendous growth potential that emerging markets offer. Again, that's why Mark Mobius feels like a kid in a candy shop.

And Mr. Mobius isn't the only institutional investor who's salivating over the opportunities in emerging markets today. JPMorgan wrote in a recent note to clients that "China is a must buy today." Credit Suisse, BNP Paribas, and Merrill Lynch have all recommended clients overweight to China. And The Carlyle Group said China, of the world’s major economies, “is best-positioned to weather the storm.”

Our Motley Fool Global Gains team is burning the midnight oil wading through the financial statements of all of the attractively priced stocks.

Today's the day
Thanks to the recent economic downturn, savvy investors now have the opportunity to buy up the fastest-growing companies in the fastest-growing parts of the world for cheap. Just last year, emerging names such as Li Ning traded at substantial premiums to slower-growing industry peers such as Nike (NYSE:NKE) and UnderArmour (NYSE:UA). Today, that premium has drastically narrowed.

That's silly, of course, and the market will correct that discrepancy eventually. In the meantime, take advantage of the situation to put emerging-market growth in your portfolio on the cheap.

You can take a look at our best ideas at Global Gains by joining the service free for 30 days. Click here for more information.

This article was first published on Dec. 12, 2008. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. Pfizer and Wal-Mart are Inside Value recommendations. Under Armour is both a Motley Fool Hidden Gems and Rule Breakers selection. The Fool owns shares of Under Armour. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.