The fiscal cliff is undoubtedly a huge obstacle facing U.S. investors right now. With massive policy differences dividing lawmakers, most expect any solution to go down to the wire, if not beyond it. Moreover, the particular provisions that an eventual resolution ends up including could have dramatic implications not just on taxpayers but on the entire global economy.
But often, U.S. investors let domestic considerations take their eyes off the international picture. That can lead you to overlook what's happening in the international markets, and as a result, you can miss some promising opportunities. Let's take a look at what's been happening around the world to see if now's the time to send your money abroad.
Europe's crisis continues
Despite depressed stock prices, European markets are far from out of the woods just yet. The current focus in the Eurozone is on Greece, which has been trying to secure bailout funds from the EU for weeks. Although it successfully passed severe austerity measures earlier this month and had expected to receive a $40 billion loan shortly thereafter, finance ministers and Greece's creditors were unable to come to terms on a longer-term solution for the nation's woes.
Don't let all the attention that Greece is getting fool you, though. Problems continue to exist throughout Europe, and many stocks with little or no Greek exposure are suffering as a result. For instance, in the telecom sector, Telefonica (NYSE:TEF) and France Telecom (NYSE:ORAN) haven't recovered from their long slumps, even as Telefonica launches its "Instant Servers" cloud-computing offering. France Telecom's recent plunge to new lows makes a bit more sense given the company's decision to slash its dividend by up to 40%. Yet even that was largely foreseen, and even with such a huge cut, the stock's yield could remain near 10%.
It's important to remember that many stocks, including Telefonica and Banco Santander (NYSE:SAN), have extensive operations beyond Europe that make substantial contributions to their overall earnings. As a result, even if Europe keeps struggling, these stocks could well reward investors elsewhere, especially if emerging markets can outperform Europe.
Meanwhile, on the emerging-market front, the picture has been far from clear, as the current environment emphasizes that even though investors tend to dump them all into a single category, each country has its own particular challenges to overcome.
For instance, Brazilian stocks have been stuck in neutral for six months now, as falling interest rates force major adjustments to long-prevailing conditions in the Latin American giant. With Brazil's currency near its lowest levels since early 2009, the Brazilian central bank is trying to help mining behemoth Vale (NYSE:VALE) and other exporters compete better around the world, but competitive devaluation among major economies makes that task increasingly difficult.
Russian stocks have also suffered big declines, as the resource-rich country faces the dual problem of falling energy prices and weakness in its primary export partners in Europe. With so many of Russia's biggest companies tied to oil, natural gas, and mining, weakness in commodities threatens the entire economy.
The big name in emerging markets, though, remains to be China. There, the much-watched slowdown shows few signs of stopping, despite a massive $150 billion stimulus package earlier this year designed to cushion the blow. With concerns about the quality of loans on the books of Chinese financial institutions, investors are increasingly nervous about the impact a credit-market collapse could have on the nation's economy. Already, weakness among solar companies Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE) and Trina Solar have threatened the viability of the entire Chinese solar industry, and similar subsidies to other key parts of the Chinese economy could have disastrous long-run consequences.
Don't miss out
The question for investors is whether these challenging conditions represent buying opportunities. In many cases, such as Chinese solar companies, it's too late for the industry to expect a big rebound. But for European telecoms and other emerging-market plays, the time is right to do some digging and find the most promising plays out there.