NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- ETF investors have a plethora of ways to access international exposure in their portfolios, from single-country sector funds to broad-based global indices. From a flexibility standpoint, there has never been a better time to be an ETF investor with a global and liquid market at your fingertips.
However, with so many options at your disposal, narrowing down the field to attractive options can be daunting. To that end, a client recently asked me whether or not I felt single-country ETFs were an appropriate investment for his portfolio. My answer coincided with weighing the pros and cons that make these ETFs unique in their own right.
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The first thing you have to understand is that like an individual stock, a single-country ETF will be susceptible to its own whims. These are typically driven by currency fluctuations, underlying company fundamentals, political environment, economic data, investor fund flows and other criteria. Often times these variables coalesce to generate returns that are non-correlated to domestic markets, which can be good or bad depending on the prevailing environment.
Single-country ETFs offer investors the ability to own a basket of stocks that are domiciled or perform the majority of their business in a specific nation. There are now hundreds of ways you can slice and dice developed, emerging and frontier nations to hone in on a niche market or economy.
In addition, the rise of currency-hedged products now offer the ability to eliminate currency risk from a variety of country-specific offerings as well.
The largest single-country ETF is the iShares MSCI Japan ETF (EWJ) , which has $15 billion in assets spread amongst 310 companies domiciled in Japan. This country has been in the news often over the last several years as its central bank continues to pump up the economy through quantitative easing efforts that distort its currency, equity, and fixed-income markets. This has led to profitable results for funds such as the WisdomTree Japan Hedged Equity Fund (DXJ) , which combines long stock positions with short currency plays.
The dispersion between varying indices in the same country along with the hit-or-miss style of politically challenged economies like that of Market Vectors Russia ETF (RSX) are one of the pitfalls of single country investing. Sometimes you select a winner with excellent growth characteristics and other times you are susceptible to large losses as a result of unintended hardships.
My preferred method of international exposure is through a broad index that may include regional, economic or fundamental construction methodology. While the results may be watered down with this more diversified strategy, you also aren't subject to the whims of a more concentrated market.
The iShares MSCI EAFE ETF (EFA) is a popular broad-based international index; however, there are also excellent opportunities to drill down to regions such as Europe, emerging markets or Asia. These wider geographic areas can add alpha over a traditional international benchmark, while still providing attractive diversification qualities across numerous countries, sectors and market cap styles. The Vanguard Emerging Market ETF (VWO) is one opportunity that I feel offers a compelling value proposition and long-term growth appeal given the continued strength in global markets.
If you do ultimately decide to invest in single-country ETFs for your portfolio, you may benefit from choosing two or three options to balance out your holdings. This will allow for a more focused approach while still retaining a diversified mindset. In addition, using sound risk management practices to guard against significant declines should be a top priority.
At the time of publication, the author was long VWO.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.