Looking Abroad for Stock Sizzle

Bonnie Armstrong used to stride beneath a spotlight and sing about how, when it comes to her "man," she's "happy to keep his dinner warm."

But that was Broadway, 1961. Since starring in the musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Ms. Armstrong has become a self-made investor. She now keeps the family investment portfolio at a steady sizzle.

This year, Armstrong so far has logged a total return of 39 percent, a shadow of last year's haul - 85 percent.

But what's remarkable is not her star-studded yields, but the fact that she mostly invests abroad.

In earlier years, Armstrong would be considered a model investor, one who looked overseas for investments that would stay hot when US stocks shuffled to the back burner.

The experts called it "diversification."

Lately, some have been calling it bunk, as international markets not only underperform Wall Street but have also stumbled over the crisis in Asian markets.

But while the jury is still out on Asia's potential, the European story may be just beginning, as companies there embark on the same restructuring drive that boosted productivity, and stock prices, in the US.

So while international markets may not guarantee diversification, many show signs of portfolio promise.

Armstrong, for example, through shrewd stock selection and a tolerance for risk, has won returns that put many professional money managers to shame.

She runs all her stock picks through a three-stage filter: Is the industrial sector promising? Is the economy well managed? Is the currency stable and strong?

"When all three match up - BINGO!" she says. She digs out tips and analysis from newspapers and magazines and occasionally in reports from her discount broker, Charles Schwab.

"I just can't get enough information," she says. She also has a Broadway star's exquisite sense of timing, pulling out of Malaysian stocks before the meltdown in July. ("Something seemed to be wrong, so I got out.")

The message is as simple as it is hard: Overseas investing can yield big gains, even for the "little guy."

But that potential is not always immediately apparent. Foreign stocks present a mixed performance record compared with Wall Street.

Over the past five years, mutual funds focusing on US companies rose an average 119 percent. During the same period, Pacific Rim funds edged up just 23 percent, according to Lipper Analytical Services. Funds investing in Western Europe gained about 125 percent.

Theoretically, foreign markets do their own thing, giving an investor a cushion when US markets sag, and experts generally recommend allocations of 20 to 30 percent abroad.

Over time the theory has worked, even though the East Asia chaos shows how big news can punish unrelated markets as a group.

Even the most ardent champions of equity investing abroad warn about weak currencies, poorly managed economies, and political instability.

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