International Investing – Looking Abroad for Better Returns

With the upcoming Memorial Day kicking off the start of summertime, and 1st quarter earnings season wrapping up, it appears all is well and good, at least outside of the political kabuki theater in Washington. There’s a chorus of animal spirits driving optimism by corporate leaders and consumers alike, which is in turn driving business investment and household consumption and savings.

And it’s not only happening in the U.S. as we’ve seen strong earnings growth and positive surprises across industries and geography – evidence that we are experiencing a bout of synchronized global expansion.

To me, a more broad-based recovery is welcomed as it eases worries of a maturing U.S. business cycle that may not be able to do as much heavy lifting for the global economy as it has recently. And, given such a constructive global backdrop, stock markets around the world may have further to run.

For a U.S. investor, there are 47 individual country-specific exchange traded products (ETFs and ETNs — https://seekingalpha.com/etfs-and-funds/etf-tables/countries) that one could purchase to garner exposure to a basket of stocks in each of these countries.

Post the global recession of 2008 to early 2009, you could have easily ignored 46 of those specific countries and focused on one – the U.S.

You could use the S&P 500 as a gauge or a broader stock market benchmark that includes broader exposure to mid- and small-capitalization companies like the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (ticker symbol “VTI”), providing a more complete view of the U.S market than the S&P 500.

It is remarkable how the U.S. stock market has outperformed the rest of the world over the past decade. Among these 47 individual country stock markets at the close of 2016, VTI ranked # 1 over 10 years, # 2 over 5 years (behind Ireland) and # 1 over 3 years. Until last year, investing outside the United States had been a fool’s errand for an entire decade!

But 2017 may mark a turning point. So far this year, the U.S. stock market sits at a lowly 39 out of 47 with a gain of ~ 7.0% year to date (through May 23rd) for the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF. Of the other investable markets, 29 of the 47 country-specific funds are up double-digit percentages nearly 5 months into the year.

Home Country Bias

If you are a U.S. investor sticking with the U.S. stock market over the past decade has been easy to do; it also has been a winning bet. But the real reason it has been easy is that most investors suffer from a home country bias – the preference to invest in one’s own country’s stocks.

So what? Today, the U.S. stock market currently accounts for 36% of the world’s stock market capitalization; that’s down from 45% in 2003. So, if you truly want a balanced stock portfolio, you should have 64% (nearly 2/3) of your stock investments outside of the U.S. markets.

Does the idea of investing most of your hard-earned wealth in global stocks make you feel queasy? Of course it does. However, you should invest abroad for the same reason John Dillinger gave when the police asked him why he robs banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”

Global Investing Back in Fashion?

Timing the market is more for the lucky than the smart, but still reversion to the mean is the one rule of investing that, given time, always rings true.

Here’s really simple reasons why I think global stock markets have started just such a reversion.

#1 – U.S. investors despise global stock markets. Chances are you have no interest in investing outside the U.S. in either developed or emerging market stocks. After all, international stock markets have gone essentially nowhere in the past decade. If negative sentiment is a necessary contrarian indicator, you could hardly ask for a better setup.

#2 – International stock markets are very cheap. It is no secret that the U.S. stock market is expensive, valuation-wise, compared to the rest of the world. According to Star Capital Research, the U.S stock market is the 3rd most expensive in the world. Only Denmark and Ireland have richer valuations based on future earnings expectations.

As I mentioned earlier, reversion to the mean. Few things are predictable in investing, but given enough time, cheap stocks will get more expensive and expensive stocks will get cheaper.

#3 – International stock markets have turned up and you probably didn’t notice. Chances are you’ve been focused on U.S. stocks more than ever or the political scene in Washington. After all, the Trump Bump gave many U.S. investors a renewed appetite for risk taking, one that harkens back to the 1990s.

However, solid returns in the U.S. stock market year-to-date tell you nothing about how much money you could have made investing outside our country’s borders.

Is 2017 the year that international stocks begin to make their long-awaited comeback? The signs are as good as they have been for a long time. And, who knows, after a few years of leaving the U.S. stock market in the dust, international investing could cease to be a pariah for U.S. investors.

I suspect more U.S. investors will turn to looking outside the U.S. for superior market returns be it in emerging markets or in developed markets like European bourses where a combination of diminished political risks, cheap valuations, years of underperformance, and a European Central Bank (ECB) that is in no rush to hike rates make the region attractive.

The graphic below from Jonathan Krinsky of MKM Partners LLC and Bloomberg points out that a simple comparison of the Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-U.S. ETF (ticker symbol, “VEU”) versus the S&P 500 ETF (ticker symbol “SPY”) showing massive turnaround potential for the rest of the world to catch up.

After several years of underperformance, economic growth in the euro zone has matched that of the U.S. for the past year or so, and appear to be neck-in-neck (as shown in the graphic below).

U.S. vs. Euro Zone, Change in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Year-over-Year

More than halfway into Europe’s earning season, 69% of companies had beaten earnings per share estimates vs. 75% of S&P 500 companies in the U.S. Overall, this is a fantastic showing.  According to Morgan Stanley, that’s the best showing in over a decade in Europe.

This marked improvement in economic growth is starting to feed through into corporate earnings and revenue. With 1st quarter results in from more than 250 companies, or about a 1/3 of European stocks by market value, the net number beating earnings expectations is on course to be the highest in more than a decade, according to Morgan Stanley. Those companies beating analysts’ estimates for revenue are set for the best performance in at least 14 years, Morgan Stanley added.

Total Returns, including Reinvested Dividends (in euros) of U.S. vs. European Stocks over Past 1 Year

The graphic above shows that over the past year, a recent run by European stocks (as measured by the Euro Stoxx 600 index) has caught up with the S&P 500 over the past month or so.

Total Returns, including Reinvested Dividends (in euros) of U.S. vs. European Stocks over Past 2 Years

On a longer-term basis of 2 years, however, there’s still quite a way to go before European stocks’ previous underperformance relative to their U.S. counterparts is erased.

The Case for Going Global

The combination of an improved outlook for euro zone growth, a benign inflationary environment and a central bank that’s unlikely to echo the Federal Reserve in raising interest rates anytime soon gives European stocks the opportunity to outpace U.S. returns.

Also supporting the case for European equities is the sheer scale of prior underperformance vs. U.S. stocks. However, the same factors also prevail in other major equity regions, especially emerging markets and, to some degree, Japan. However, political risk also remains a negative reality for Europe on a medium- to long-term horizon, even if the most immediate worries seem to have passed.

In many of my multi-asset portfolios, I have followed a geographically diversified approach to my equity positions this year, elevating exposure outside of the U.S. I view my position within the context of diversifying equity exposure across major regions, reflecting a broadening out of economic growth – a synchronization of global growth, if you will – rather than an outsized bet on European outperformance.

While there is a good chance that European earnings growth will come in as the strongest of any region this year, emerging market equities could well give Europe a run for its money in this regard. Japan, too, should see solid earnings growth this year, particularly if the yen remains weak, as I expect it will.

Valuations look significantly cheap for emerging markets as they do for Europe, particularly in comparison to the U.S. stock valuations. Given valuation metrics, the region that looks more challenged than the rest is the U.S. It is clearly the most expensive of any major equity market, and the upside to earnings growth looks somewhat limited unless we can get fiscal stimulus such as tax cuts, infrastructure spending, and regulatory relief passed by Congress.

But for now confidence remains historically high for businesses and households alike, which probably has more to do with expectations for no new anti-business regulations and taxes than actual legislation getting passed that would make it wildly better. With that said, here at home corporate growth (as measured by the S&P 500) is set to accelerate throughout 2017 to a solid 12.3% and 10.8% in 2018, according to Bloomberg Intelligence data. If that comes to fruition, that would be the biggest 2-year advance since 2012 and would help justify rich U.S. market valuations.

In an environment of strong and broadening global economic and earnings growth, I have assigned greater importance this year to being overweight equities relative to bonds, and I am looking to international markets for attractive returns. And while U.S. equities don’t look as compelling as other regions, I’m maintaining exposure a bit of home bias as there are offensive and defensive qualities as well as comfort that U.S. exposure brings to investors’ portfolios.

I wish you and yours an enjoyable summertime ahead and a reflective Memorial Day for those men and women that served and sacrificed to win or preserve our freedom.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and/or the sources cited. The article is for general education and information about investing and economic matters. Nothing should be construed as advice, nor any of it considered an offer or solicitation of any kind to buy or sell any investment products. We are not responsible for the accuracy or content on third party websites or sources cited; any and all links are offered only for use at your own discretion; and our privacy policies do not apply to linked websites. Eric Linser, CFA is an investment advisory representative of Green Valley Wealth, a dba of Naples Asset Management Company, LLC, a federally registered investment advisor.

Author: EricLinser

Eric Linser, CFA, is a San Francisco-based Private Wealth Manager with Green Valley Wealth Advisors *, an independent registered investment advisory (RIA) firm. Eric’s expertise is in providing comprehensive wealth management services such as investment counseling, financial planning, and retirement plan services to individuals, families, businesses, and foundations. A particular focus is on generating income for retirees, and keeping savers on track to fund future goals. For over two decades, Eric has helped provide wealth planning guidance so that his clients could achieve financially secure retirements. He is trained, experienced and credentialed to design and execute a plan that best meet your aims. Plan for your future; invest in what matters. *Green Valley Wealth Advisors offers investment advisory services through Naples Asset Management Company, LLC, a federally registered investment advisor (CRD #133978)

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