By David Sterman
As the U.S. economy tries to sputter back to life, one important fact is increasingly clear: any rebound is likely to be muted as the country wrestles with persistently high unemployment and confidence-sapping budget deficits. That's why it's more important than ever to make sure your portfolio is also exposed to more dynamic corners of the global economy. For many investors, that means an internationally-focused (ETF) that focuses on specific countries. But that approach may also mean that you're buying some good companies as well as some bad ones.
Instead, why not focus on stellar companies with proven track records and strong exposure to global exports? For my money, these four foreign stocks -- all of which have ADRs trading here in the United States -- offer a solid blend of geographic diversity, financial strength and respectable long-term growth prospects.
Honda Motor (NYSE:HMC)
We all know that Honda's cars have a solid reputation here in the U.S. But the Honda brand is also gaining a foothold in fast-growing markets such as Brazil and China, along with other developing markets, like the CIVETS countries I wrote about recently.
Honda has two great engineering strengths. Its engines are very frugal, and they emit very low levels of pollutants. As fuel economy regulations tighten, and as carbon emissions look to be increasingly restricted in many countries, Honda should make further inroads.
I think of Honda as a "rain or shine" stock. If the global economy fares well in coming years, Honda should see sales rise in tandem with the global auto market. And if the global economy slumps, Honda's financial strength and lean operations should enable it to operate profitably, even as rivals face distress. That's just what happened in fiscal (March) 2009: most auto makers reported sharp losses, while Honda saw net income drop from $6 billion to $1.4 billion as sales fell more than -15%. But the company proved that it can handle the tough times without falling into the red and damaging its impressive balance sheet.
Shares of Honda trade for about 11 times projected 2012 profits. Auto makers never garner very high P/E ratios, so I think this stock only has +20% to +25% upside during the next year or so. But this is a great-long-term holding that could appreciate at a moderate pace for many years to come.
Few companies can afford to commit more than $10 billion to a new division, but that's just what Brazil's Vale is doing, according to The Wall Street Journal. Vale, which is already the world's largest producer of iron ore and other minerals, aims to similarly dominate the market for crop fertilizers. These disparate industries share several traits: they require large amounts of capital to achieve global scale; they will always be in demand as long as people need to eat, drive cars or live in apartment buildings; and they traditionally generate solid long-term returns when a company employs a healthy (but not too high) amount of debt leverage. Vale carries $25 billion in debt, though that figure is quite manageable in light of the company's roughly $12 billion in annual cash flow (when averaged out over the last three years).
One of the charms of an expansion into fertilizers is that it allows Vale to reduce its dependence on the highly cyclical minerals market. And the more cyclical a business, the lower P/E ratio its shares typically command. By diversifying its revenue and profit sources, which lead to more stable growth, investors are likely to bump up the projected P/E ratio. Shares now trade for less than seven times next year's profits, but that forward multiple could move up to 10 once the company's diversification efforts pay off.
Equally important, Vale is focused on markets around the globe, but is especially dominant in its home region of Latin America, which is seeing steady economic advances as Brazil, Chile and Colombia ripen into truly first-world economies.
Central European Media (NASDAQ:CETV)
Even as investors have come to see Asia and Latin America as compelling growth-oriented regions, they have largely bypassed Eastern Europe and the countries that once comprised the Soviet Union. To be sure, this whole region has been slow to develop, and per capita consumer spending badly lags neighbors in Western Europe. But progress has been considerable when you consider just how moribund this region was 20 years ago.
Few remember that dynamic economies in Korea, Japan, Chile and Brazil had underwhelmed international investors until they built up an economic infrastructure to support a growing middle class. Eastern Europe -- from the Baltic States in the North to Croatia in the south -- are experiencing similar growing pains but are on a clear path to more robust economies.
There are many ways and sectors to play this nascent trend, but I prefer to focus on the consumer sector, which is increasingly developing a taste for more sophisticated entertainment and lifestyle choices. Central European Media is a solid proxy for consumers from Moscow to Bucharest. The company has invested heavily to become a dominant player in advertising and TV programming.
As noted, growth in these areas is still erratic, so the company's sales are barely growing this year as ad rates slump. But investors need to stay focused on the company's track record, when sales grew at least +20% every year from 2002 to 2008. Even as the global economy rebounds, growth in the years ahead may cool from that pace. We're still a long way from economic parity between Eastern and Western Europe, so ad rates have ample room to rise in Eastern Europe in lockstep with still-rising consumer incomes.
But investors like to look at current quarterly trends and have decided that shares are unlikely to move higher in the near-term, so they've moved elsewhere. This is a stock that moved toward the $120 mark in late 2007 and now hovers around $20.
I don't expect shares to re-visit those heights any time soon, but once investors re-visit this region, the stock is still likely to be seen as a logical play and shares could easily move back to the $30 or $40 mark. More importantly, Central European Media should be seen as a long-term growth vehicle, and shares can be viewed as a "Buy-and-Hold" global investment.
While the first three stocks profiled each represent a different region, this last pick is a proxy for growth on all continents -- including Africa. In a nutshell, ABB is an awful lot like General Electric (NYSE:GE) without the volatile finance arm. As the world builds more power plants to meet the demands of power-hungry middle classes in emerging economies throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa, ABB is often one of the lead contractors.
It's a remarkably stable, but unsexy business model. ABB has earned $3.1 billion or $3.2 billion in net income in each of the past three years. Profits are likely to be off a bit this year due to the timing of some large project completions, but sales and profits are expected to rebound at a nice clip next year.
Shares hit $30 a few years ago as power plant spending surged. The global slowdown has pushed shares back to $20, but in the face of robust long-term infrastructure needs, ABB should see sales and profits rise steadily in coming years, helping shares to eventually eclipse that $30 mark.
It's important to stay focused on U.S. stocks, many of which are trading at very low valuations. But to guard against any prolonged economic weakness here at home, your portfolio should also have exposure to some of the more dynamic pockets of the global economy. Any and all of these stocks should allow you to maximize returns while cutting down some single-country risk.
Disclosure: Neither David Sterman nor StreetAuthority, LLC hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.