Offshore investing: spreading risk helps sleep
The worlds economies still dance to different tunes and
have different boom and bust cycles that tend to offset each other,
even though the differences are getting smaller. As a result,
international stocks can provide diversification for a portfolio
heavy in U.S. stocks.
Between June 1997 and October 1998, for example, Japans
Nikkei index lost almost 40%, but European markets did well due
to continental economic union. U.S.-style corporate restructurings
also began to pay off. One regions success balanced the
others failure to get its financial house in order.
There has been less divergence between regions more recently.
Even so, we suggest the prudent investor cannot afford to ignore
overseas markets. They now represent some 44% of world market
capitalization, up from 25% about 30 years ago. International
stocks can provide solid diversification for a portfolio heavily
invested in U.S. equities.
Exchange rates add an extra flavor to foreign investments. Fluctuations
can add to or detract from profits or losses. Institutional investors
and others pay significant attention to this factor. When the
U.S. dollar was appreciating against the Japanese yen, billions
of dollars flowed out of that country and into U.S. stocks and
bonds, worsening the economic crisis in Japan. That money started
to flow back out when the currency valuation began to reverse.
Americans saw their investments in Japan appreciate then, even
when the stocks remained in neutral.
Funds that invest overseas fall into four basic categories: world,
international, emerging market and country specific. Diversification
is the key to containing risk. And, yes, a good fund manager helps,
too. Research is scarce and foreign companies, other than some
in Canada, are difficult for individual investors to track on
World funds are the most diverse of the four categories. They
are, as the name suggests, able to invest anywhere in the world,
including the U.S. As a result, they dont offer as much
diversification as a good international fund. Some have 60% or
more of their holdings in the U.S.
World funds tend to be the safest foreign stock investments, but
only because they typically lean on better-known U.S. stocks.
Just examine the portfolio carefully to make sure they dont
mimic your U.S. holdings. Funds invested in small- to medium-sized
companies are unlikely to duplicate the foreign investment component
of domestic funds.
Foreign funds, on the other hand, invest mostly outside the U.S.
Whether they are relatively safe or risky depends on the countries
in which they invest.
Advice: choose a fund with the best balance between countries
and regions, or be very sure the manager has a good record of
moving in and out of regions profitably.
Country-specific funds invest in a single country or region. This
type of concentration makes them particularly volatile
especially those that invest in emerging markets. If you pick
the right country at the right time, the returns can be substantial.
Get it wrong and look for your head to be handed to you on a plate.
These funds are for the most sophisticate investors only.
Emerging-markets funds are the most volatile, invested as they
are in undeveloped regions subject to political upheaval, currency
risk and corruption. These economies, such as Argentinas
in 2002, can collapse; governments can fall or be overthrown.
On the other hand, these regions have enormous growth potential.
Adding a small sprinkling of emerging markets exposure to your
portfolio could serve to lessen downturns in U.S. markets
but they are for long-term investors only, those who can wait
for fallen markets to recover.
As always, of course, the biggest risks carry the greatest potential
for outstanding rewards; you simply require nerves of steel. The
best course is to diversify well and sleep soundly at night.
About The Author
Written & published by Murray Priestley, Managing Partner
of Portofino Asset Management, private investment managers and
publishers of the Portofino Report. http://www.portofinoasset.com/