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International Investing in 2020: Your Comprehensive Guide


If you feel like the international equities in your portfolio aren’t holding up their end of the bargain, then you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common concerns today. And the global landscape remains as uncertain as ever. A trade war with China, slowing global growth and Brexit are just a few sources of uncertainty. After a decade of dominance by U.S. stocks, you might be wondering: Why bother investing outside the U.S.?

There have always been reasons not to invest in international stocks. And this guide is not a prediction that markets are set to rise in the near term. But for long-term investors, we believe international equities hold great promise, and there are many reasons to stay invested. International investing has changed dramatically in recent years, but what has not changed is its rightful place in a well-diversified portfolio.

This guide will cover 10 things you need to know to help navigate the challenging investing environment outside the U.S:

  • 4 ways international investing has changed
  • 3 reasons why we consider international today
  • 2 portfolio construction decisions
  • 1 answer to a key asset allocation question

Think all the best stocks are in the U.S.? Think again.

International equities have trailed U.S. markets over the past 10 years, but the index-based returns that most investors follow don’t tell the whole story. On a company-by-company basis, the picture is quite different. In fact, most of the companies with the best annual returns each year have been based outside of the United States.

How have U.S. markets done so much better while a higher percentage of the top stocks each year are non-U.S. companies?

  • Many more companies are located outside the U.S. than in it. While this may seem obvious, it is an important point. As an investor, why would you limit where you invest based on geography?
  • Indexes do not necessarily represent the best growth opportunities, especially outside the U.S. Fundamental research of individual companies is often a better way to uncover attractive investments.

We’ll explore both ideas in greater detail, but first let’s dig into how non-U.S. markets have changed in recent years, and why investors need to rethink their approach to international investing.

4 ways international investing has changed

1. The correlation between U.S. and non-U.S. stocks has risen

In some ways, international investing used to be much easier — as simple as dividing your stock portfolio into two buckets, U.S. and non-U.S. The result? Instant diversification. But not anymore. The easy button is gone.

That’s because the correlation between U.S. and non-U.S. markets has more than doubled over the last 25 years.

But why has correlation risen so much? Globalization is partially responsible. Despite escalating trade tensions in recent years, companies and countries are more integrated than ever. As companies have become more global, the lines between U.S. and non-U.S. indexes have started to blur, and the correlation between the two has risen. This reduces the diversification benefits of blindly allocating to both areas. As we’ll see, a focus on companies rather than broad indexes can help overcome this trend.

2. Revenue has become more important than real estate

If real estate is all about “location, location, location,” investing may be all about “revenue, revenue, revenue.” Consider that a company’s products are often made with parts manufactured in several countries, and they’re then sold to customers around the world. This rise of multinational companies means investors should re-evaluate how they think about global stocks. A company’s address is less important than where it does business.

For example, the 10 largest companies in Europe generate less than a third of their revenue from their home region. Political strife or an economic slowdown can still hinder European stocks, but will affect every business differently. A careful examination of revenue exposure can help identify companies that are less likely to be disturbed by macro headwinds.

The bottom line? We follow the money, not the mail.

3. Company fundamentals have become more significant

With company locations becoming less significant and correlations on the rise, where should investors look for returns? It comes down to company fundamentals.

A study by Empirical Research Partners shows that in 1992 most of an emerging market company’s return could be explained by its sector or region, and only 36% was accounted for by the business itself. That was at a time when investing in emerging markets (EM) was a relatively new concept, and the macro environment drove returns. In many portfolios they were grouped together as a basket of higher growth but riskier assets.

Today that relationship has flipped. As EM companies have become more established on the global stage, 64% of their stock returns can be explained by company fundamentals. This is the same proportion found in developed markets. So no matter where you invest, company fundamentals matter most.

Sector and country-specific issues will still influence business profits, but the best companies are often led by strong management teams able to overcome external factors. This is where bottom-up research becomes essential — and can be the difference between investing in a company that succumbs to macro headwinds and purchasing shares in the next big growth story.

4. High-growth sectors are a smaller component of non-U.S. indexes

There are many reasons for lackluster non-U.S. returns over the last decade: a strong U.S. dollar, political turmoil and trade tariffs — just to name a few. But another factor is the way in which we typically measure international markets.

International indexes generally have a greater concentration of value-oriented stocks in “old economy” sectors such as materials, financials and energy. Contrast that with the U.S., where technology, health care and consumer tech dominate local indexes. That alone accounts for much of the decade-long return disparity between U.S. and non-U.S. stocks.

That’s not to say that growth can’t be found in international markets. It just requires more work to uncover promising companies that may be hidden within indexes. And that’s where company-by-company analysis becomes so critical. The average stock in Europe may be growing slower than one in the U.S., but growth can still be found by those who look past index averages and examine each opportunity based on its individual characteristics.

3 reasons why we consider international today

1. Many market leaders are located outside the U.S.

If you were going fishing, would you limit yourself to half the lake, or would you want to seek opportunities wherever they were available? Investing shouldn’t be any different. One of the greatest benefits of global investing is that it allows us to consider the world’s best companies, no matter where they are located.

In certain sectors, European companies are among the world’s most dominant players, including large pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis, AstraZeneca and Novo Nordisk. The luxury goods industry is another example, centered in France, Italy and Switzerland with companies such as LVMH, Kering and Richemont.

Outside Europe, the story remains just as valid. Japan is home to many cutting-edge robotics firms, including Murata and FANUC. Some of the world’s most successful technology companies are based in Asia, including Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor, Tencent and Alibaba.

To have a well-rounded and robust portfolio of stocks, investors should consider international markets — even if it appears that the U.S. market in aggregate will continue to do better in the short term.

2. Greater dividend opportunities overseas

The idea of fishing in a bigger pond may be even more beneficial to income investors. That’s because outside the U.S., more companies have tended to pay dividends and have done so at higher levels. There were more than six times as many non-U.S. stocks with yields over 3%, as of August 31, 2019.

International dividend investors don’t have to give up growth potential either. For example, semiconductor manufacturers Taiwan Semiconductor and Samsung each had dividend yields above 3%. Likewise, pharmaceuticals such as Roche and Novartis are on the cutting edge of cancer research and offer both the potential for capital appreciation and consistent dividend payouts.

At this late stage of the economic cycle, a sharper focus on dividend-paying companies and lower volatility portfolio strategies may be a good idea. But with such a large pool of stocks available, deep fundamental research is key. Indeed, not all dividend-payers are created equal. Many companies appear solid on the surface but carry significant debt burdens and may be on the cusp of losing their investment-grade credit rating. A missed payment or a downgrade could send share prices tumbling, so we focus on companies that are most likely to maintain consistent dividend payments.

3. International stocks are on sale

Valuations matter. There is evidence that stocks trading at a discount will average higher long-term returns than those selling at a premium. But the key phrase here is long term, because there is almost no correlation between valuations and short-term returns.

This may not help those trying to time the market, but we’re looking to hold onto assets for the long haul. In nearly every sector, there are comparable non-U.S. companies trading at lower valuations than their American-domiciled counterparts. Unicredit and Samsung are just two examples.

Companies overseas often trade at a discount due to political or economic issues in their home countries, even if these factors don’t directly affect the business itself. Over the long term, company fundamentals, not geopolitical turmoil or a company’s address, drive stock returns.

2 portfolio construction decisions

Regional or global?

When markets are uncertain, it can be good to have some flexibility in your portfolio. Deciding on the right balance between traditional regional funds and more flexible global funds is one of the first asset allocation decisions investors need to make.

A regional approach is the most traditional, typically including three dedicated geographic segments: U.S., developed international and emerging markets. This allows portfolios to be constructed with specific geographic allocations in mind.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a more flexible approach would include global funds. These mandates typically allow portfolio managers to dynamically shift their holdings and choose companies that they find most attractive from anywhere in the world.

Both approaches have their merits, and we can help you decide whether to combine dedicated international funds with a more flexible global strategy.

Active or passive?

We’ve emphasized fundamental research of individual companies as a way to overcome international investing headwinds. But at a time when index investing has become increasingly popular and non-U.S. equities have lagged, is it worth the effort? Or would investors be better served investing in a passive U.S.-only index fund?

The truth is, the average active mutual fund may not offer an advantage over the index — a big failing when passive funds seek to replicate those benchmarks. But there’s no need to settle for average. Not when you consider that the top quartile of active funds outpaced the indexes by a wide margin in the 20 years ending December 31, 2018.

Global fund managers have shined the brightest, outpacing the MSCI ACWI by 4.9% per year. These funds also handily beat top quartile U.S.-only funds in a period when U.S. indexes dominated. One explanation is that these global managers were most successful in benefiting from flexible mandates that allowed them to choose from the best companies, no matter where they were located.

When selecting non-U.S. and global fund managers, remember that it’s impossible to cover the entire world from New York. Consider partnering with investment managers whose research teams travel the globe and have access to company management.

1 answer to a key asset allocation question

How much international equity do you really need?

When it comes to answering this question, the simple answer may be “more.” Whether it’s due to a home bias or a lack of rebalancing during the long U.S. bull market, many investors may find themselves underexposed to non-U.S. equities.

At Capital Group we don’t make top-down asset allocation decisions based on geography, and we don’t believe there is a magic number to target. But as a rule of thumb, having about a third of your equity allocation within non-U.S. stocks may be appropriate. For a standard 60/40 portfolio, that would be 40% U.S. equity, 20% non-U.S. and 40% fixed income. Our objective-based model portfolios and target date series may also provide good starting points for discussions around international exposure levels for various risk profiles and life stages.

Digging one step deeper, the type of equity should vary depending on an investor’s risk tolerance. In the current late-cycle environment, investors may want to consider more conservative portfolios, which generally include more dividend-paying equities with a history of lower volatility. Outside of equity, investors can seek additional diversification by allocating a portion of their fixed income portfolio to international bond funds.

Posted November 13, 2019.

Investing outside the United States involves risks, such as currency fluctuations, periods of illiquidity and price volatility, as more fully described in the prospectus. These risks may be heightened in connection with investments in developing countries.

Standard & Poor’s 500 Composite Index is a market capitalization-weighted index based on the results of approximately 500 widely held common stocks. Standard & Poor’s 500 Composite Index (“Index”) is a product of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and/or its affiliates and has been licensed for use by Capital Group. Copyright © 2019 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global, and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Redistribution or reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited without written permission of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC.

©2019 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein: (1) is proprietary to Morningstar and/or its content providers; (2) may not be copied or distributed; and (3) is not warranted to be accurate, complete or timely. Neither Morningstar nor its content providers are responsible for any damages or losses arising from any use of this information. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

MSCI has not approved, reviewed or produced this report, makes no express or implied warranties or representations and is not liable whatsoever for any data in the report. You may not redistribute the MSCI data or use it as a basis for other indices or investment products. MSCI ACWI is designed to measure results of more than 40 developed and emerging equity markets. MSCI ACWI ex USA is designed to measure equity market results in the global developed and emerging markets, excluding the United States. MSCI ACWI Pharmaceuticals Index is designed to measure results of pharmaceutical companies within more than 40 developed and emerging equity markets. MSCI World ex USA Index is designed to measure equity market results of developed markets. The index consists of more than 20 developed-market country indexes, excluding the United States. MSCI Emerging Markets Index is designed to measure results of more than 20 emerging equity markets. MSCI Europe Index is designed to measure developed equity market results across 15 developed countries in Europe. MSCI USA Index is designed to measure equity market results in the United States.