American depositary receipts have been around since the late 1920s and are, in essence, stocks that trade on the U.S. exchanges and represent a fixed number of shares in a corporation domiciled outside of the United States. These securities are generally issued and sponsored in the U.S. by a bank or brokerage firm.
Initially ADRs were spawned because of investor interest in buying shares of companies that were based in foreign countries as a way to simplify the currency translations. Thus, ADRs are denominated in U.S. dollars. Similar to an ADR is a global depositary receipt, or GDR, which is issued in more than one country, not just in the U.S., as a means of investing in foreign-based companies. GDRs are generally denominated in either U.S. dollars or euros.
The exchange-traded fund industry has made great strides in offering a variety of options for investors looking for diversified exposure to ADRs. These options range from developed countries, to emerging markets, to frontier markets, as well as an actively managed ADR strategy that is due to launch shortly from AdvisorShares. One thing to keep in mind is that different index providers sometimes disagree on the definition of a developed, emerging, or frontier market (country), and that said, it's important for the investor to dissect exactly what country exposure he is receiving in each ETF as opposed to blindly relying on labels like "developed markets" or "emerging markets."
Let's examine a few of the available options and their individual nuances.