Late last month, we got the news that our fragile, recovering economy was praying it would never get: word of another potential financial crisis from halfway across the world. Way over in the Persian Gulf, glittering, skyscraper-laden Dubai announced that it would delay payment on the debt of its flagship company, Dubai World. Fear spread quickly that this was just the first of many financial collapses to come across the globe, which would soon send the delicate U.S. economy spiraling back into the abyss.
Fortunately, at least for now, it appears such a scenario has been averted, thanks in part to a $10 billion bailout from neighboring Abu Dhabi. As a result, world markets have managed to tentatively shrug off Dubai's fiscal concerns and get back to business.
But there are still a few lessons we can take away from this latest in a long line of global financial collapses.
1) Diversification is not just a buzzword
Dubai had a grand scheme: Build a towering empire on the shoulders of the commercial real estate sector. Build it, and they will come, so to speak. But the simple fact of the matter is that you can't build a healthy economy on the back of one, single sector. A thriving economy needs economic activity from multiple sectors, to lessen the impact of potential bubbles. Dubai might have still experienced a collapse in its overheated real estate market, but a diversified economy would have gone a long way to lessening those effects.
Just as investors who tried to ride the wave of late 1990s tech craziness by putting all their eggs in Microsoft's
2) Debt does matter ... eventually
When times are good, no one wants to listen to those urging caution -- after all, there is money to be made! Taking on debt can seem like an easy way to finance future growth, especially when the profits are rolling in. But endlessly issuing debt without consideration for future ability to repay that debt can engender a crisis down the road. Dubai took on massive amounts of liability, figuring that the real estate boom would continue to thrive and keep its construction companies building. But bubbles happen, and so do the aftereffects of those bubbles deflating. Excessive balance sheet liabilities managed to nearly bring down even government-sponsored organizations like Fannie Mae
Are you listening, Washington, D.C. ?
3) Foreign investing can be risky
Dubai is an interesting animal, sort of a cross between a developed and emerging economy. But its recent troubles highlight some of the inherent risks that come with investing overseas, especially in developing nations. In addition to traditional company-specific risk, you get the added dangers of political, legal, and currency risk. But since it's likely that the greatest growth prospects over the next decade will come from outside of the U.S., you can't afford to ignore emerging economies. To keep a lid on risk, stick to more stable and well-developed foreign companies like Brazil's Petroleo Brasileiro
These three companies enjoy a greater international presence, market share, and healthier balance sheets than many of their smaller, less developed counterparts, making them a somewhat less risky proposition. Or, find a high-quality, low-cost emerging-markets mutual fund and let someone else do the research work for you.
If you want more insider information on what emerging market funds might be right for you and how to safely invest overseas, check out the Fool's Rule Your Retirement investment service. With your free 30-day trial, you'll get access to all the investing and personal financial planning advice you'll need to meet your long-term retirement goals.
Odds are good Dubai won't be the last victim of financial collapse as the global economy gets itself back on track. We got lucky this time around in that Dubai's troubles don't appear to have seriously affected the rest of the world, but that may not be the case next time. By diversifying, focusing on high-quality and financially stable investments, and accepting and limiting portfolio risk, investors can take steps to make sure their portfolio is protected from the worst of any coming financial storms across the globe.
Amanda Kish is the Fool's resident fund advisor for the Rule Your Retirement newsletter. At the time of publication, she did not own any of the companies mentioned herein. Microsoft and Intel are Inside Value recommendations. Motley Fool Options recommends a diagonal call on Microsoft and buying calls on Intel. Petroleo Brasileiro is an Income Investor recommendation. America Movil S.A.B. de C.V. is a Global Gains recommendation. Click here to find out more about the Fool's disclosure policy.