Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to Send Your Investment Dollars Overseas

More and more money is leaving home. The flight is caused by unhappiness at what is happening in this country, if not outright fear as to the long term value of our hard earned capital. What many Americans fail to realize is that there is hardly a truly popular government any place. To some this desire to obtain capital escape is a new urge, but the truth is that wealthy individuals and families have been exporting their investment capital for centuries. The earliest investors to send their money across borders were the wealthy from small, often but not always, wealthy countries. The two leading countries that were slow to export an important part of their wealth were the Americans and the Japanese. In our case there was some foreign investment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, (I believe that my grandfather’s brokerage firm had not only foreign customers, but some US investors investing overseas through his facilities). From the time I was a trainee in the vault of a New York bank counting foreign stock certificates that backed the American Depository Receipts some 50 years ago, I was interested in investing in foreign securities. While I have owned individual foreign stocks in the UK, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, and France, I found a sounder way to invest. With total bias, the better way to invest is through internationally-oriented mutual funds.


For those who are novice investors the best choices are global funds that mix at their discretion, US and foreign holdings. In truth, today most large capitalization funds almost anywhere in the world are global funds. In many cases at least half of the earnings growth driving their performance is generated by foreign-based affiliates or exports. But for those of us who believe that we have the right mix of investment managers, a dedicated international fund is the right tool. For those of us who are more demanding, a number of different international funds are needed.


Recently I was present when a large domestic investor was hearing the seductive call to invest overseas. Sitting through three presentations of separate account international managers, I realized that the analysis leading to their decision should have been similar as to what I do in selecting international funds for portfolios of largely domestic funds.


The first approach entails asking the question, “What does the international investment bring to the account?" The simplest desire, and the one that can not be assured, is better performance than the existing portfolio. To me the first step is how the new investment integrates with the existing investments. Some portfolios are essentially participators in the general economic conditions. Most of the satisfactory investments for this need are index huggers, or if you prefer, closet indexers. Some prefer actual index funds trading off potentially advantageous stock selection for lower fees. In truth, the portfolio manager of this product can be located anyplace where there is electricity for his/her index modeling computer.


A second approach is a country and/or sector allocator. In this case there is a willingness to move away from the central tendency of the index. As practiced by the activists, there may be a willingness to eliminate some countries or sectors. Others have an operating rule to underweight or overweight a country or a sector by 50%. For the most part these managers use publicly known trends. Their skills of mixing and matching can be practiced from any location where air travel can easily bring in foreign salesman or commentators.


The third approach is to have a global point of view. Often this is described in terms of growth (of earnings) or value (a discount from intrinsic value). Various studies show that from time to time either growth or value produce better results. As the investment game is now global, it is my point of view that growth or value leadership (or for that matter most sector leadership) follows a similar path in the domestic market as it does in various international markets. Therefore, we try to match the style inclinations of the international portfolio managers with those that dominate the domestic portfolio. As international investing is inherently more expensive, I reserve the domestic portfolios for minor style changes if I do not have the ability to meaningfully shift cash flows. In this third approach one is counting on the allocation skills of the portfolio manager. If one wants to participate in the leading edge and willing to be part of the “bleeding edge,” then the activist should be located in the flow of information. While today we can do a lot from a central location like my intergalactic world headquarters in Summit, New Jersey, there is a belief particularly by clients and some consultants, that closer to the action listening posts are better. (Notice that most of these are in cities with good restaurants.) There is some risk that the listeners are primarily getting their inputs from these restaurants, golf clubs, and in certain places, the American Clubs. The listeners may not have their ear really to the local ground. For example, in none of the recent manager presentations or six month reports did I hear anything about wide scale loss of faith in the European Union. On August 27, in my previously mentioned global world headquarters, I read that only 42% of Europeans say they trust the European Union, and this is down 6% in the last six months. In addition, “fewer than half of Europe’s citizens see their country’s membership in the EU as a positive thing….” as reported in EurActiv. I do not find this poll as a positive indicator unless I want to put on my contrarian hat. If I do this hat trick my investors should be warned.


The fourth approach and the one that I generally favor is one where individual stock selection is the critical talent of the portfolio manager. To my mind they have to know as much about the companies they invest in as the leaders in the various local communities. These managers should regularly attend important weddings and funerals; speak and understand the local dialects as well as be able to prepare local foods. In other words, they should have gone, or are, local. Having a string of offices around the world would help if they are offering investments beyond a single market. These should be primarily research offices not sales offices. There is a risk to this marriage with the locals similar to the risk of working with industry analysts. While from time to time they may advocate a sale, rarely will they advocate complete retreat and closing the office. Thus in this fourth approach there is a purchase bias which must be recognized.

We use all four approaches depending upon the needs of the account. Notice in no case did we focus on performance. My approach is that performance is at best an introduction to a manager and may well be poorly timed after a period of good performance.

As this blog is an instrument of a global community, I am curious whether you will share your thoughts on international fund and manager selection.

I hope next week to devote this blog to a view as to the direction of the domestic market that appears to be wallowing in fear and unhappiness. Any thoughts would be most welcome.

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