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The Year in International Funds 2011

The can't-miss markets finally missed, and other tales of woe.

For many years, investors may have had concerns about sluggish growth in the United States, debt woes in Europe, and myriad issues in Japan. But faith in China and other big emerging markets, such as Brazil and India, ran deep. Surely those rapidly growing economies would keep the world's stock markets humming?

Not in 2011. The long-term growth stories remain enticing in emerging markets, and their stock markets may well return to their trend-beating ways. But last year served as a reminder that all rallies must pause at some point and that rapid rates of GDP growth don't necessarily translate into stock-price gains.

There was more to international-fund performance in 2011, of course. But the deep losses suffered by emerging-markets stocks did play a major role in the year's results.

The Categories, From Bad to Worse
It may come as a surprise to some readers that a discussion of emerging markets would lead this article. After all, wasn't the alarming and seemingly never-ending eurozone crisis the major global investing story of 2011?

It was. But in quite a change from most years, the international-stock-fund categories with the weakest returns for 2011 all focused on emerging markets. Starting with the worst performer, the most dismal international categories were China region, Latin America, Pacific/Asia ex-Japan, and diversified emerging markets. Their losses ranged from 23% for China region to 19% for diversified emerging markets. (Note: All figures for 2011 are through Dec. 27.)

Several factors account for this reversal of fortune. First, emerging markets had been on a roll, broadly speaking, ever since the end of the global bear market in March 2009. When worries about Europe and the United States resurfaced, in a sense it was natural that some investors would take profits where they'd gained the most, which for many meant emerging markets. Second, plenty of worries surfaced in the markets themselves. In India, fears of rising inflation combined with slowing growth rates and a plummeting currency. In China, concerns about a property bubble, government actions to actively rein in growth, plus some tentative challenges to the political order, weighed on investors' minds. And the possibility of a slowdown in China hit the resource companies that take center stage in Brazil's market. Finally, as will be discussed later, declines in emerging-markets currencies hurt fund returns as well.

That said, markets in Europe didn't exactly shine, and while Japan's market recovered somewhat from the dive it took after that nation's devastating earthquake and tsunami, it ended up firmly in negative territory as well. So, the main style box categories for international funds--foreign large growth, foreign small/mid value, and the like--all ended up with losses of between 12% and 17%, with the large-cap groups posting the milder declines. The Europe category landed in that range, too. Meanwhile, style didn't matter much: There were no significant performance differences between the value and growth categories.

All told, the international categories lost far more than did most U.S.-stock categories. The worst performer among the U.S. groups, the financials-sector category, had a much more moderate loss than those suffered by the emerging-markets groups, and all of the domestic style-box categories strongly outperformed their foreign counterparts.

Currency Effects Muted for Most, but Strong for Some
In many years, performance differences between U.S.- and international-stock categories can be chalked up partly, or even mostly, to currency effects. When the dollar rises, that reduces foreign-fund returns (unless they are completely hedged, which is rare), and when the dollar falls, the returns of international funds get a boost.

Last year, the story was mixed. For funds with little exposure to emerging markets, currency translation had little effect on returns. Despite all the turmoil in the eurozone, the dollar/euro exchange rate actually ended the year close to where it began. The same went for the British pound and the Canadian dollar versus the U.S. dollar. Even the Swiss franc, which at one point had a strong gain against the greenback, fell back to end the year nearly flat versus the dollar. Among the major currencies, only the yen gained meaningfully against the dollar, and that rise was limited to the low single digits.

In emerging markets, though, currencies had a tough time--which was one more reason why funds devoted to that realm suffered such declines. Although the Chinese yuan held its own, the currencies of most other major emerging markets, including India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa, all suffered deep declines versus the dollar in 2011.

Drilling Down to Specifics
Of course, performance can't be explained entirely by broad country returns and currency movements. Individual stock performance varied greatly, so it mattered what companies these funds owned. Most notable were the gains posted by tobacco companies in a year when few other stocks were thriving. A wide variety of funds, including  Harbor International (HAINX),  Wintergreen (WGRNX), and  Virtus Foreign Opportunities (JVIAX), benefited from owning several tobacco firms among their top holdings. Gains of more than 20% among such stocks helped these and other funds outperform their rivals.

Conversely, the prices of European banks fell off a cliff, so avoiding them was a boon and holding them a curse. In fact, a key reason  Oakmark International (OAKIX) failed to enjoy its usual success in 2011 was that it owned several of Europe's more prominent banks, such as  Credit Suisse (CSGN),  BNP Paribas (BNP), and Intesa Sanpaulo, in the top ranks of its portfolio. All suffered painful declines. Of course, owning scandal-plagued Olympus Corp. of Japan did not help, either.

Outlook for 2012
Against this complex, confusing background, predictions for the coming year wouldn't be worth much. But what we do know is that, aside from the continuing eurozone drama, the performance of emerging markets and emerging-markets currencies will play a substantial role in determining which international funds enjoy a happier time in 2012 than they did last year. 

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Gregg Wolper does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.