Global Trader: Crossing Borders Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Diversification

Stocks aren’t collectibles. Variety and novelty are not investment goals. And in the post-COVID era, there just isn’t a strong portfolio argument for chasing global stocks purely because they do business outside the dollar zone.

Don’t get me wrong. I love it when companies around the world step up to the plate and compete head to head with the usual U.S. suspects . . . bringing the best foreign companies to Wall Street was how I built my career.

But when a company is a great global competitor, that’s why we buy its stock. Dynamism and innovation have no national origin. If the growth rate is there, the stock will probably outperform its peers.

And likewise, if the stock is unusually cheap relative to the fundamentals, the odds are good that it’s going to catch up. The market hates a discount. Sooner or later, laggards and leaders converge.

There’s only one other consideration that really justifies buying a stock: managing the efficient frontier. If a company tends to move in a different direction from the market as a whole, it’s valuable as a diversification factor.

Unfortunately, I ran the numbers and simply layering foreign ETFs into a U.S. portfolio really doesn’t provide meaningful diversification at all. Take France, for example.

You’d think that European stocks faced more than their share of pressure in the pandemic and then the current energy crisis . . . and that Paris, as the capital of luxury, would be moving in a different direction from the tech-heavy U.S. market.

However, plug an ETF like EWQ into a portfolio and you’ll see that it behaves a lot like a consumer discretionary fund. That’s because EWQ is packed with consumer manufacturers and they move in fairly close step with their U.S. counterparts.

German stocks tend to move in step with the industrials. Swiss stocks tend to move with the staples, thanks to the massive weight of Nestle in that market.

There are exceptions. Chinese stocks, for example, have cycled around Wall Street, providing some diversification from month to month . . . but right now, they still move the same way as their U.S. peers more than half the time.

That’s higher correlation than a coin flip. Admittedly, it’s lower than the crazy unison we’ve seen lately between U.S. sectors that normally move in different directions, like Big Banks and Big Tech . . . or stocks and bonds, for that matter.

But until correlations start breaking down, there just isn’t a lot of intrinsic benefit in buying overseas just because you’re bored with U.S. stocks or someone told you to chase a broader global footprint.

That time is coming. Just not yet.