Lure of International Stock Grows as US Economy Lags

Of the many ways to invest abroad, one of the safest is buying into American firms that sell overseas

WITH the pace of the United States economy slackening, some investors are reviewing the prospects for foreign stock markets - and international stocks in particular.

One way of buying international stocks, however, may not be the most obvious.

Instead of buying overseas companies - either through a broker, for individual stocks, or by buying into an international mutual fund - you can instead gain global exposure by purchasing selected US Blue Chip stocks that contain a large international component.

Examples of US multinational stocks include McDonald's Corp., Boeing Company, General Electric Company, Exxon Corp., General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Company, Procter & Gamble Company, Woolworth Corp., IBM, and Coca-Cola. All of these firms receive a substantial portion of their sales and earnings from overseas activities.

Most North Americans know McDonald's as just a US fast-food chain, but in fact, slightly less than 50 percent of McDonald's sales come from overseas. For the first six months of 1995, for example, McDonald's total US sales were $7.5 billion; total overseas sales were $6.6 billion. But operating income was $614 million from the US, somewhat less than the $641 million from abroad.

McDonald's is now found in 84 countries and on all continents except Antarctica. Regarding Antarctica, ''Hey, you never know,'' says a spokeswoman, with a laugh.

Approximately 80 percent of Coca Cola's operating income comes from international sales.

Urging investors to purchase US stocks with an international component ''has always been our basic recommendation'' for people seeking a strong global exposure, says Thomas O'Hara, chairman of the National Association of Investors Corporation (NAIC) in Madison Heights, Mich. The NAIC is a group of individual investors.

''There are many advantages to buying the US stocks, rather than buying overseas companies,'' Mr. O'Hara says. Safety, that is, lower risk, is the most obvious, he says. ''The financial information you get [from the US company] will be in a form that is understandable for most people. It will be printed in English.''

And the company's accounting system ''will be reliable.'' Moreover, if any overseas currency transactions are involved, either for the company, through its overseas operations, or, more unlikely, for the investor, ''they will be dealt with'' by the accounting department of the US Blue Chip company without any direct bookkeeping problem for the investor.

In addition to buying US companies that sell abroad, another approach might be to look for domestic-equity mutual funds that concentrate in specific US economic sectors - food companies, or capital-goods firms, for example - that have a high degree of export activity.

Not all market experts agree that international investors should aim primarily for ''safety'' - that is, buy US issues as opposed to overseas stocks. Bruno Bertocci and David Harris are principals of investment-firm Stein Roe Global Capital Management in New York. This firm has assets of more than $200 million under management, an amount expected to reach $300 million by the end of 1995.

Mr. Bertocci and Mr. Harris argue that to gain highest returns from international companies, one should not hesitate to buy carefully selected true international stocks - that is, stocks not necessarily listed on US exchanges.

The main reason, they say, is that price-to-earnings ratios tend to be more favorable for overseas firms compared with US companies.

Moreover, they note, the value of the dollar against the yen and other currencies has been rising lately. A higher dollar makes US exports more expensive abroad, and thus, can cut into market share. That, in turn, could lower corporate earnings for US firms.

Experts note that investors also have to be very careful about where US firms operate. For example, last week Colgate-Palmolive Company announced it would reduce operating earnings by more than 30 cents a share this year because of substantial losses from its Mexican operations. Some 20 percent of Colgate's business comes from Mexico, a far higher percentage than for rival Proctor & Gamble.

Bertocci and Harris argue that a person should have at least 10 to 20 percent of his stock portfolio in international issues. In terms of investing philosophy, they seek to differentiate between overseas firms that are local powerhouses within a specific country and provide very high rates of return, and overseas firms, such as Royal Dutch Shell, of the Netherlands and Britain, that are multinational companies with a heavy US presence.

O'Hara, of NAIC, is not totally averse to owning selected overseas stocks. But after buying US companies first, he suggests that investors should then own American Depository Receipts, or ADRs, which are overseas companies listed on US stock exchanges such as the New York Stock Exchange.

An ADR is subject to US securities regulations, which is not the case for other overseas stocks. Finally, he says, investors might want to buy into international mutual funds established by US mutual-fund companies with ''proven track records.''

Many major analytical services, such as Standard & Poor's Corp. and Value Line, provide current information on the international exposure of US companies.

Buying multinational Blue Chip stocks - such as McDonald's, Boeing, or IBM - can diversify an investor's portfolio.

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