In 2021, the U.S. stock markets hit record highs almost 70 times, and the consensus is that the U.S. market is largely “expensive.” Such a snap view is confirmed by a variety of valuation metrics: price-to-earnings ratios (P/E) and forward P/E being chief among them. Moreover, the bond market is poised to face a rough 2022 because there is a growing consensus that the United States Federal Reserve Board (also known as the “Fed”) will also increase interest rates, which historically has caused bond prices to fall. Between this seeming domestic “rock and a hard place,” there are some areas that continue to look like good deals: one of which is international equities.
In this article, I will cite three key reasons why investing now in international markets might be a good long-term investment: or, in other words, explain why the U.S. is expensive and the rest of the world is not.
Currency and the Almighty Dollar
The U.S. dollar is relatively strong right now – and indeed might get stronger in the near future because the U.S. may raise interest rates as soon as March. Indeed, the dollar posted its best year since 2015 in 2021, and the U.S. dollar index (DXY) was up 6.5% in 2021.
However, overall a stronger U.S. dollar will make international goods and services more competitive (or allow manufacturers to make more money) in the longer run. How does that work? In short, a stronger U.S. dollar means it is less expensive to buy foreign goods and services. If the dollar is weak versus the euro (let’s say $1 equals 0.8€), for example, a purchase of an automobile that costs 30,000€ would equal $36,000, and the automobile will be compared to those similarly costing $36,000. If, however, the dollar is strong (let’s say $1 equals 0.9€) a 30,000€ automobile would only cost $33,000. A manufacturer can deal with this in a variety of ways– it can aim to sell more cars at less price (instead of 10,000 cars at $36,000 try to sell 15,000 at $33,000) or the same number of cars at the original $36,000 price, booking the currency gain of $3,000. In either case, the firm will be helped by the stronger U.S. dollar.
The U.S. dollar being strong also has the effect of meaning that just as the foreign currency could theoretically buy more car for less– a stock originally priced in euro can also be bought for less. Indeed, foreign market returns for U.S. investors were hindered by approximately 5.2% by currency headwinds last year due to the strengthening U.S. dollar according to JP Morgan.
An additional tailwind of a strong dollar for international markets is that it frequently promotes international travel, improving many economies that depend on tourism for a large chunk of their GDP. However, the ongoing pandemic may lead to this effect being muted. Should COVID progress to an “endemic” rather than a pandemic, we’ll likely see an increase in travel to foreign countries buoyed by pent-up demand for travel and the ability to buy more with less.
(For those who prefer a video explainer from the perspective of U.S. companies, look here for an overview from the WSJ)
Rest of the world GDP growth
One of the ongoing beliefs is that the U.S. economy (and accordingly its stock market) is doing better because the U.S. economy is doing better than the rest of the world. This is not necessarily the case.
In fact, between 2012 and 2019 the GDP growth rate of the rest of the world surpassed that of the United States by 0.5% per year – though this was admittedly a cooling down as the rest of the world grew at a rate exceeding the U.S. by 1.2% from 2001-2011 according to the JP Morgan Guide to the Markets. In fact, the last time the U.S. outpaced the rest of the world in GDP growth was from 1992 until 2000. Despite this growth advantage, U.S. large-cap stocks have outpaced the rest of the world (the MSCI EAFE index) by roughly 275% over the last 14 years. (JPM)
This might be the most compelling case for looking at non-U.S. equities going forward – an international note we’ve hit on in our Gimme Some Truth podcast before in this episode. As I noted in the introduction, the U.S. (particularly U.S. large-cap stocks) is trading very high relative to its longer-term P/E measures. There are several reasons for this, but a key one is the low-interest rates in the United States and a very strong run for U.S. technology over the last 10 years. On the other hand, despite negative interest rates, valuations of non-U.S. stocks have not soared.
Indeed, relatively speaking, valuations for non-U.S. stocks are deeply discounted compared to the U.S. Again, according to the JP Morgan Guide to the Markets, the rest of the world’s forward price-to-earnings ratio (FPE) was at 14.1 versus the S&P 500’s 21.2 FPE. This is compared to a 20-year average of 13.3 FPE versus 15.5 FPE for the U.S. In other words, the rest of the world is trading at a 32.7% discount versus U.S. FPE, which is significantly off of its 20-year discount of 13.2% discount. Moreover, the rest of the world is yielding higher than the U.S. right now. On average, the U.S. has dividend yields about 1.6% less than the rest of the world (compared with a 1.1% average difference over the past 20 years).
Such data also apply as we look from region to region. For instance, Japan, despite macroeconomic forecasts of 3.2% growth next year, is currently trading below its 25-year forward P/E ratio.
In short, even if we take into account that the rest of the world tends to trade at lower valuations historically, the rest of the world is trading at a discount in terms of price to earnings.
There is an old saying in investing that the market can stay wrong longer than you can stay solvent. While we don’t go that far in our risk-taking, the 14-year ongoing out-performance of U.S. large caps has exceeded the longest previous period of out-performance by approximately 6.5 years and growing (the rest of the world outperformed the U.S. for 7.3 years from approximately 2001-2008; the longest period of U.S. out-performance was a little over six years during the 1990’s dot com boom). It is impossible to predict when the shift will occur, but from a long-term perspective, the rest of the world is looking like a better and better deal.