Why Invest Overseas At All?


This is the first in a two-part series on investing abroad. We'll take a look at some index funds that are based on broad international benchmarks, but before we do that let's look into the debate surrounding the value, if any, of foreign diversification.

Before you buy an international index fund, you might ask whether it makes sense to invest overseas at all. Although this is a complicated question, it seems pretty clear that the increased diversification and opportunity provided by overseas equities argue strongly for their inclusion in most portfolios. The idea behind foreign diversification is that if some of your domestic investments are declining, your foreign investments may cushion the blow. Thus, many financial advisors tell their clients to spread their invested wealth among stocks and bonds, both foreign and domestic.

Lately, a number of analysts have called attention to the increased correlation of foreign and American stocks. Conventionally, statisticians measure correlation on a scale of -1 to 1, where 1 represents perfect correlation, -1 represents perfect inverse correlation, and 0 no correlation at all. Recently, Walter Updegrave of Money magazine reported that, over the past five years, most large-cap biased foreign funds had a correlation with the S&P 500 of 0.70 or higher. Also, Roger Ibbotson of the Yale School of Management and Chicago-based Ibbotson Associates calculated that the correlation between American stocks and foreign stocks, including emerging markets, was 0.765. Moreover, these and other studies have shown that foreign stocks have followed American stocks especially closely during bear markets, when diversification is so important. These statistics are often cited as evidence that foreign equities no longer provide suitable diversification for American investors' portfolios. It is true that many foreign stock markets are presently following ours in tandem - but they haven't always done so.

Merrill Lynch recently reported that in autumn 1993, the correlation between American and foreign equities was a very low 0.145. In 1979 it was as low as 0.07.

While it may be argued that it may be some time before these correlations return to the level of those of the 1970s, we can be sure that they won't remain static. And even if the correlation among the world's large cap stock remains high for a while, investors can diversify in emerging markets or small-cap foreign funds. For example, the Dreyfus Founders Passport foreign small-cap fund has correlated at only 0.23 with the S&P 500 in the last five years. In sum, it's presently not as easy to diversify adequately overseas. But it's still quite possible, and almost certain to get easier in the future.

Why Use Indexing Overseas?

Geri Hom, fund manager for the Schwab International Index, answered this question most succinctly.

"While there are instances when active managers can outperform and index fund,
picking the active manager who will consistently outperform will be difficult for
most investors," says Hom. "Also, generally in an index fund, the investor is appraised of the methodology used by the fund manager. As a result, you know exactly what you are buying. It is possible that with an active fund you don't even know what countries you are investing in."

These are, of course, some of the same arguments we hear for indexing at home. Since there are so many companies in the international MSCI EAFE index, and they are so widely dispersed all over the world, working with this index presents some of the same difficulties we find when dealing with the Wilshire 5000 index.

On the whole, foreign index funds have pretty much matched their actively- managed rivals, when risk is taken into consideration:

YTD ret.
3 yr. ann. ret.
5 yr. ann. ret.
Standard Deviation
Active Foreign Funds
Foreign Index Funds

Source: Morningstar[/:Author:]

It should be mentioned that indexing is generally a longer-term strategy, and most widely-spread foreign index funds haven't been around long enough to render an accurate assessment of their performance.



The Other Side of the Argument

Active managers, of course, have scored some impressive successes overseas of late. Morningstar reported recently that active fund managers have beaten the EAFE benchmark with far greater frequency than U.S. managers have outperformed the S&P 500. Over the last five years ended in February, the average foreign index fund had beaten only half of its peers in the international arena, while the average US index fund had beaten two-thirds of its peers. Moreover, The Wall Street Journal reported in its latest Mutual Funds Quarterly Review that "many investors prefer to have a stock picker on the ground in countries that are a little bit more difficult to navigate and where markets are frequently less efficient."

By all accounts, a great many active overseas fund managers achieved their success against the EAFE by avoiding Japanese equities, which comprise 30% of the EAFE index, and which have been in a protracted bear market for the last decade. One of the central tenets of indexing is that it is more important to participate in bull markets than to avoid bear markets, since the stock markets in most developed countries have historically appreciated in value over time at a pace that substantially outstrips inflation. By avoiding Japan for all of these years, active managers have won - at the cost of risking missing out on the next Japanese bull market.

As is the case in most aspects of the world of index funds, Vanguard is the leader in overseas equity index funds. Vanguard maintains the oldest such fund, its European Stock Index Fund (VEURX), which was launched in 1990. They boast the lowest expenses, and they track their benchmarks better than most other such funds. Still, at least two other high quality broad international equity index funds are available to investors: Fidelity's Spartan International Index (FSIIX) and Schwab's International Index-Investor Shares (SWINX).

All of these foreign fund companies have their own way of indexing the broad foreign equity market, for which the conventional benchmark is the Morgan Stanley Capital International Europe, Australia, and Far East Index (MSCI EAFE). Generally, all three have registered results that one might expect from funds that track their indexes closely.

Vanguard Tot. International
Fidelity Spartan International
Schwab International
Expense ratio
Fund incept. date
April 1996
November 1997
September 1993
Min. init. purchase
Total net assets ($MM)
3 mo. ret.
1 yr. ret.
3 yr. ann. ret.
5 yr. ann. ret.

Source: Morningstar data as of 3/31/2001

Over the past three years ending 3/31/2001, the Vanguard International fund had an r-squared value of 0.99; the Schwab International was at 0.98, and Fidelity Spartan International had a value of 0.97, according to data provider Wiesenberger. R-squared is a measure of how closely the returns of a fund parallel those of a particular index - in this case the index is the MSCI EAFE.

The historical returns of the MSCI EAFE index are listed below:

3 mo. ret.
1 yr. ret.
3 yr. ann. ret.
5 yr. ann. ret.
10 yr. ann. ret.
15 yr. ann. ret.

Source: Morningstar data as of 3/31/2001

Schwab's International Index-Investor Shares

Although this Schwab fund has only about one fifth the net assets that Vanguard's Total International Stock Index has, it's well worth at least looking into, not least of all because its expense ratio is a low 0.58%. Interestingly, Schwab created its own index for this fund to follow.

"Many of the international index funds out there are much more broad in that they follow the MSCI EAFE index, which has many more countries and many more
stocks," says Geri Hom, who manages the Schwab International. "In seeking an international milieu for investors, Schwab chose to create a low-cost index fund. The proprietary Schwab International Index represents the 350 largest stocks in 14 developed countries, so it is very much a blue chip international index."

By sticking to its proprietary index, Schwab's fund has avoided the recent turmoil in some of the emerging markets, and the unpredictability of foreign medium- and small-cap stocks, but it is also missing out on some of the diversification which draws investors overseas. This fund has a minimum purchase of $2,500 compared, for instance, to $15,000 to get into Fidelity's international fund. In general, this is a large-cap international fund that seems to be designed to eliminate big unpleasant surprises in the market, while ensuring lower trading, administrative, and capital gains tax costs.



Fidelity Spartan International Index

The Bankers Trust indexing team at Fidelity has a reputation for indexing experience and excellence. At 0.35%, this fund's expenses are comparable to the Vanguard International fund. This fund closely tracks the MSCI EAFE, but it also has some leeway in picking stocks.

Still, like the EAFE index, this fund is heavily slanted toward Europe and away from emerging markets (except for a very few issues from Hong Kong and Singapore, which Morgan Stanley doesn't even consider emerging markets). Currently, one of this fund's greatest claims to fame is that it has beaten the EAFE benchmark in each of the last three years.