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Finding Overseas Value at Home

Reduced tax rates on dividends and the weak U.S. dollar present weary U.S. investors with opportunities abroad.

And thanks to the time-honored, but not widely known, investment devices called American depositary receipts, or ADRs, U.S. investors don't have to become instant experts on a multitude of languages and currencies. ADRs allow Americans to invest in large- and medium-sized foreign companies using U.S. dollars and domestic stock exchanges.

One big attraction of ADRs is their dividends. A Morgan Stanley study showed that while the typical U.S. dividend is 1.7%, the dividend rate is 3.6% in developed Asia -- excluding Japan -- 3.3% in the U.K., 2.9% in Europe and 2.4% in emerging free markets.

The 2003 tax act dropped rates on dividends from 20% to 15% for the highest income tax brackets and from 10% to 5% for those in the lowest brackets. However, there's no guarantee that the next president -- even President Bush himself -- can retain low taxes on dividends after the current tax breaks expire in 2009.

Even though ADRs are denominated in dollars, they offer investors a currency play that can be volatile. When the dollar is weak, as it is now, it amplifies robust returns on the foreign companies that ADRs invest in.

On the flip side, when the dollar rallies against currencies from other countries, ADRs from those countries will fall at a more precipitous rate than shares held by direct investors in the parent companies.

For now, however, ADRs offer nothing if not a welcome diversion. While U.S. stock markets continue to struggle, as investors wonder what the Federal Reserve will do next and await the outcome of a divisive presidential election, elsewhere in the world in Latin America, Asia and Russia, economies are stirring.

Some individual ADRs help tell the story: For the year to date through Sept. 27, the ADR for Brazilian food company Perdigao S.A. (PDA) is up 81%. Ditto for the Japanese lender Nissin (NIS), and Moscow-based Mobile Telesystems OJSC (MBT - Get Report) has climbed 66%.

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