The question no longer remains whether Americans should invest abroad. The answer is yes. In the decade to come, many foreign countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America are likely to grow faster than the United States.
The only serious issue left is what kinds of foreign investments should Americans be making. Picking individual securities is hard. You have to follow foreign economies, tax laws, financial news and interest rates; each company's growth, profitability and prospects; and the vagaries of each foreign stock market.
You also have to assess each foreign currency relative to the dollar. When the dollar declines on international markets, foreign investments go up in value; when the dollar rises, foreign investments go down. That's a lot to assess. What's more, you have to do your corporate research without access to as much financial information or market research as is available in the United States.
Your alternatives are to take the recommendations of a stockbroker, who may not know much more than you do, or buy mutual funds.
If ever there was an argument for mutual funds, it's in the field of international investing. Relax and let the fund manager worry about interest rates, tax laws and currencies. Investors should look for diversified funds that invest in several different countries. It's risky to concentrate on one country.
Funds invested in stocks give you the strongest stake in international growth. Funds invested in foreign bonds are chiefly a speculation on falling interest rates. Their share prices will rise in value if interest rates decline. But if it's steady income you're after, foreign bond funds are not your meat, even though the yields look high. Those yields, and your dividend checks, will shrink whenever the dollar rises in value.
For the blood sport of picking individual stocks, try:
U.S. multinational corporations -- an armchair way for your money to travel. Look for major U.S. companies that earn a large percentage of their profits abroad. Just a few examples: International Business Machines Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Microsoft Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and McDonald's Corp.
Canadian stocks trading on U.S. exchanges -- the only foreign shares to be listed directly. They include Alcan Aluminum, Canadian Pacific Ltd. and Seagram Co.
American depositary receipts (ADRs) -- issued by banks against foreign shares. You buy and sell the ADRs as if they were the stocks themselves. More than 800 ADRs now trade in this country, up from about 150 in 1961.
About 220 ADRs are sponsored by the companies themselves. They give you American-style financial information (although not as quickly) and pick up the cost of administering the securities. The remaining ADRs are unspon- sored, meaning that they're managed by a bank without company involvement. With unsponsored ADRs, you usually get no financial reports. The price of administering them is deducted from your dividends. The ADRs of some pretty big companies are unsponsored, including Deutsche Bank AG, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and Nestle S.A. Most ADRs represent one share each, but some represent bundles of five or 10 shares.