Exchange-traded fund investors have been sending their money on a world tour this year.

During the first third of this year, foreign ETFs have dominated the list of top-returning funds, with investments in Europe and the Asia Pacific region being the major contributors. Metals and mining funds also were among the top-performing ETFs.

Leading the pack is

Van Eck Global's

Market Vectors Steel ETF

(SLX) - Get VanEck Vectors Steel ETF Report

, which rewarded its investors with an impressive 27.68% gain so far this year.

The ETF is both a metals and international play, as its top three holdings are based in the U.K., Brazil and the Netherlands, respectively.

The top country-specific ETFs were dominated by the iShares family, which represented the list with its

iShares MSCI Malaysia

(EWM) - Get iShares MSCI Malaysia ETF Report

(up 25.16% year to date),

iShares MSCI Germany Index

(EWG) - Get iShares MSCI Germany ETF Report

(up 16.73%),

iShares MSCI Netherlands Index

(EWN) - Get iShares MSCI Netherlands ETF Report

(up 16.65%),

iShares MSCI Australia Fund

(EWA) - Get iShares MSCI Australia ETF Report

(up 15.28%) and the

iShares MSCI Sweden Index

(EWD) - Get iShares MSCI Sweden ETF Report

(up 14.87%).

The only non-iShares country-specific ETF on the list was the

WisdomTree Pac Ex Japan HY Eq

fund, which has grown 15.39% so far this year.

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These ETFs were kept company by the

WisdomTree International Industrial


fund and the

WisdomTree International Basic Materials


, both of which focus more than two-thirds of their portfolios on Western European countries.

Below is a table of the ETF leaders and laggards for the year to date. Leveraged and "inverse" ETFs are excluded from the leaders and laggards arrays in the accompanying table.

Three of the leading ETF performers were rated with the highest possible grades of A+ from Ratings. Of the remaining two with sufficient performance histories to allow for grading, both received marks of A to qualify for buy recommendations.

But not all foreign ETFs proved to be winners. The

iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Fund

(FXI) - Get iShares China Large-Cap ETF Report

and the

iShares MSCI Taiwan Fund

(EWT) - Get iShares MSCI Taiwan ETF Report

became members of the roster of 10 lagging ETFs for the year to date. They were kept company by two Internet funds and three that invest in banking.

The iShares/FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Fund, despite a 5.53% slide in value for the year to date, ranks eighth of all ETFs for the past 12 months, with a gain of 35.52%.

The biggest losers so far this year are in the distressed homebuilding industry. The worst ETF performer was the

iShares DJ U.S. Home Construction Index Fund

(ITB) - Get iShares U.S. Home Construction ETF Report

, which has tumbled 14.51% since the start of the year. Next to last was the

SPDR S&P Homebuilders

(XHB) - Get SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF Report

, off 8.39% for the period.

Editor's note: The author has a long-term holding in the iShares MSCI Taiwan Fund


Richard Widows is a financial analyst for Ratings. Prior to joining, Widows was senior product manager for quantitative analytics at Thomson Financial. After receiving an M.B.A. from Santa Clara University in California, his career included development of investment information systems at data firms, including the Lipper division of Reuters. His international experience includes assignments in the U.K. and East Asia.