Got a hunch about Hong Kong stocks? Sweet on Sweden?
You might want to check out the 17 World Equity Benchmark Shares, or WEBS as they're known. WEBS trade like stocks on the American Stock Exchange, each one tracking the Morgan Stanley Capital International index for a specific country.
The shares offer a low-cost, low-hassle way to diversify a portfolio into non-U.S. stocks, analysts say, at a time when some investors are growing concerned that the U.S. bull market may be slowing.
"It's indexing gone global," said Michael Porter, senior country funds analyst at Salomon Smith Barney.
WEBS, currently available for 10 European countries, five in Asia-Oceania, as well as Mexico and Canada, are the realm of both institutional and individual investors.
Investments in WEBS, which were created in 1996, have doubled every year, to about $1.8 billion now.
Retail investors make up about 55 percent of the total, according to Erik Liik, director of WEBS sales at Boston-based Funds Distributors Inc., which markets the shares.
Luc Helson, a 36-year-old currency trader in Chicago, put about 10 percent of his personal portfolio into German WEBS about six months ago.
Helson said he was convinced that evidence of a pickup in economic growth and merger and acquisition activity in Europe pointed to gains for stocks in the region's biggest economy. He also found German shares cheap compared to the U.S. and other markets.
"I wanted a play on Germany," Helson said. "It's a very long-term strategic bet." He had been eyeing Japan WEBS since earlier in the year, and found no product in the mutual fund world to his liking, he said.
WEBS expense ratios aren't the lowest out there for international indexed stock products.
WEBS fees average 1.04 percent, down from about 2.40 percent at their inception, according to Funds Distributors. That compares with the 0.97 percent average expense ratio on international indexed funds, according to Morningstar Inc., a Chicago-based research company.
Yet WEBS have a leg up because of the ease of trading the shares, said Amy Schioldager, head of international equities at San Francisco-based Barclays Global Investors, which manages them.
With WEBS "you can take advantage of intraday trading," and benefit from U.S. market moves, while mutual fund investors must wait till the end of the day to lock in a price, Schioldager said. The shares can be purchased directly by anyone with a brokerage account.
WEBS, which are open-ended--meaning there's no limit to the number of shares that can be created as new money flows in--aren't unique in providing access to stock markets of specific countries.
There are both actively managed closed-end funds and open-end funds for many of the WEBS countries. But management fees on actively managed, international funds are almost double the passively managed, index-tracking WEBS.
The average expense ratio on actively managed open-ended international equity funds is 1.94 percent, according to Morningstar.
"As [WEBS] assets grow, costs will fall," said James Clunie, investment director at Murray Johnstone Ltd. in Glasgow, which has about $45 million of client money in WEBS shares.
Clunie favors WEBS for Singapore and Austria, which he called "one of the best value countries out there."
Assuming WEBS assets keep growing, fees may also drop further as some of the costs related to starting up WEBS will be paid off in the next year and a half, making fees of less than 0.9 percent possible, Liik said.
WEBS may not be the best way for some individuals to move money into foreign stocks. That's especially true for those who don't stay up to date on political and economic trends that could have an impact on markets, said analysts and investment advisers.
For example, a novice to international investing who is keen on European shares might be better off with a more diversified European stock fund that avoids placing "all one's eggs in one basket," said Porter at Salomon Smith Barney.
Valley Forge, Pa.-based Vanguard Group has some indexed international funds with fees well below 1 percent. Vanguard's European Stock Index Fund, which tracks the MSCI Europe Index, has annual operating expenses of 0.29 percent, plus a half-percent fee at the time of purchase.
Still, the universe of WEBS is set to expand.
Barclays expects to create as many as 11 WEBS next year, according to a person familiar with the company's plans. New WEBS could include Brazil, Greece, Thailand, a WEBS that tracks the euro zone, and a yen-denominated U.S. WEBS for Japanese investors.
In the world of WEBS, the Japan shares continue to dominate investors' attention, comprising about 40 percent of all WEBS assets.
Japan WEBS are up 48.8 percent since the start of the year. That correlates closely with the 48.2 percent gain in the TOPIX Index of the 1,358 companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange's first section. Yet it trails, for example, the actively managed Fidelity Japan Fund's roughly 119 percent gain.
Trading in Japan WEBS is also the most active, at about 500,000 shares daily, approximately four times the runners-up, Malaysia and Singapore.
That discrepancy is partly because Japan is the largest market among WEBS, and it also enjoys some of the best visibility at present among investors, given evidence that an economic turnaround is taking hold there, analysts said.
In terms of marketing WEBS, "Japan's a layup," said Liik at Funds Distributors.