Time to see the world in a new way

International mutual funds can do a lot for you, but it's easy to head off in the wrong direction. Hint: Look beyond the biggest stocks in the biggest markets.

By Penelope Wang, Money Magazine senior writer

(Money Magazine) -- Americans are finally starting to explore the world. Financial planners and Money Magazine have long argued that you need to put some of your money into overseas markets, but most folks have stayed at home.

Until recently.

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Nearly $130 billion has poured into overseas stock funds this year, more than five times the amount invested in U.S. equity offerings. A lot of that is just performance chasing, since foreign stocks have trounced domestic ones over the past three years thanks to faster overseas growth and a falling dollar.

But chances are you need to invest even more in foreign markets, and it wouldn't hurt to be a little more adventurous about it too.

Just as American tourists tend to flock to the familiar big names such as London, Paris and Tokyo, U.S. investors are sending almost all of their money to those markets as well. That's no way to really see the world - and it's no way to invest in it either.

Increase your stake

As recently as five years ago, many investment advisers recommended stashing just 10 percent to 20 percent of your stock portfolio in international funds. Most of us don't come close to that small amount. In a recent survey, for example, Fidelity found that two out of three of its 401(k) plan investors did not hold a single overseas equity fund.

That shortfall is especially worrisome today, when pros recommend putting 25 percent to 35 percent of your equity portfolio in foreign stocks. "The U.S. accounts for only half of the world's market capitalization," points out Anthony Ogorek, a financial adviser in Williamsville, N.Y. "And overseas economies are growing faster than in the U.S., so that's where the best returns can be found."

Foreign funds also give you a way to hedge against the U.S. dollar, since they hold companies that earn returns in overseas currencies. When the dollar is weak, as it has been lately, you get a boost when those returns are converted into U.S. greenbacks. The reverse is true when the dollar strengthens.

Look beyond large-caps

There is no question that large-cap overseas funds make great core holdings. By owning shares of huge multinational companies, these funds are a relatively safe way to play overseas markets, which is why they have become a staple of 401(k) plans. But if you stash your entire overseas allocation in large-caps, you won't get the full benefits of international diversification.

"In today's globalized economy, the financial markets of developed countries have become more closely tied than before," says Yale finance professor William Goetzmann. "So the stocks of big companies tend to perform in the same way, no matter where they're headquartered."

A U.S. money center bank such as J.P. Morgan Chase, for example, isn't all that different from Germany's Deutsche Bank. Both operate overseas, and they have similar reactions to global economic moves.

Moreover, if you restrict your international investing to large-cap funds, you will miss out on large swaths of the world's markets, as well as some of the best returns. That's because these funds invest the bulk of their assets in a few developed countries while holding little or nothing in emerging markets.

Get off the beaten path...

One way you can diversify beyond foreign large-caps, suggests William Rocco, a senior analyst at Morningstar, is to invest in a small-cap and midcap foreign-stock fund. These offerings mainly buy shares of companies with stock market values of $8 billion or less that trade in developed countries, although many invest a small stake in emerging markets as well.

Just as with U.S. small stocks, foreign small fry tend to grow faster than their large-cap siblings.

And because small companies typically get most of their sales locally, they are more closely tied to their country's economic growth than to global markets. That provides you with greater diversification.

Small-cap foreign funds are more risky than foreign blue chips, however, so put no more than 5 percent to 10 percent of your stock portfolio in one.

A top choice: T. Rowe Price International Discovery (PRIDX (Charts), which is on our Money 65 list of recommended funds. Recently the fund's top stakes included $2.5 billion Soitec, a French producer of silicon chips, and Financial Technologies, a $2 billion Indian developer of trading software.

...Or go even further

If you're the adventurous type, consider a diversified emerging markets fund, which holds the stocks of companies in developing countries. With these funds you have the potential for bigger returns - and bigger losses. It's not unusual for emerging markets to plunge by as much as 20% in a month, as they did earlier this year, before rebounding.

Invest no more than 5 percent of your equity portfolio in these funds. On our Money 65 list, we recommend SSgA Emerging Markets (SSEMX (Charts), as well as Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock (VEIEX (Charts), an index fund that is also available as an exchange-traded fund (VWO (Charts).

Once you have arrived at an asset mix that suits your goals, it's important to keep your expectations in check. Since overseas equity funds have had a tremendous run, chances are their returns will cool down, but no one can really say when. So be prepared to hang on.

And remember, experienced world travelers are ready to cope with any change in the climate.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.