As financial markets from Hong Kong to Brazil continue their tumultuous ride, many investors once gung ho about pouring money into emerging markets are now hesitant.
Although hard data are difficult to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that investors' reluctance to dabble in international equities could mean a boon for some U.S. stocks.
"Investors are getting a little antsy about investing in Southeast Asia in particular," said Bob Freedman, chief investment officer of John Hancock Financial Services in Boston. "And some of that money will likely come back to the U.S., where the economy is much more stable."
Overseas investors have been selling their stocks because of concerns about the Asian currency crisis. Last Friday, markets in Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia all fell after a 4.2% tumble in Tokyo's Nikkei, to its lowest level in 28 months.
The drop in the Nikkei was prompted by investors' fears that Japanese financial institutions may sell their stock portfolios to improve their balance sheets.
Market watchers note, however, that only certain U.S. equities stand to gain from a pullback in overseas investing. Among those seen benefiting are financial services stocks and technology issues.
Financial stocks are generally viewed as reasonably priced; most financial concerns have posted solid earnings this year; and as a group, financial firms stand to do well in the current, favorable interest rate environment.
As for high-tech stocks, even their most ardent supporters acknowledge that they frequently get over-bought and suffer minicorrections.
Nonetheless, there is still a lot of investor confidence that U.S. technology-whether hardware or software-remains one of the greatest export engines in the world.
Besides these sectors, several others may be poised for an upswing as investors seek solace in U.S. equities.
"People are nervous, so they want to invest in the kind of companies that do well in good and bad times," said Mr. Freedman. He cited "consumer staples," such as food companies, energy operators, and some large retailers.
Mr. Freedman's observations appear to ring true. For example, supermarket stocks rose this week after Morgan Stanley Dean Witter analyst Debra Levin upgraded the industry to an "overweight" rating from "neutral." The analyst said the sector offered a good refuge from market jitters.
Michael Metz, Oppenheimer & Co.'s chief market strategist, said recent gyrations abroad indicate that bets on international stocks "are really trades, not investments."
"You've got to be there at the right time and get out at the right time," Mr. Metz said.
Until now, he added, buying on market dips has been the right strategy for investors in global equities. "But I have a feeling that's not the case this time," he said.
Mr. Metz said the lesson is to sell emerging-market holdings when a downturn occurs "and then the safest place to be is the U.S. market." He cited its stronger economy, greater investment choices, and more transparent dealings.
Some people believe that whether U.S. stocks get a boost from the downturn in global markets depends largely on how deeply investors believe these problems are entrenched.
"I don't see a wholesale movement from those markets, although they have certainly been beaten down considerably," said Robert McLeod, finance professor at the University of Alabama's Culver House College of Commerce and Business Administration.
The market in Hong Kong, for instance, has plummeted about 45% in recent months. Hong Kong had been considered by many experts to be one of the best emerging markets in Southeast Asia, in part because its currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar.
Any rebound in Hong Kong equities now "depends on the psychology of the investors," Mr. McLeod said.
"A lot hinges on the way these countries handle their currency problems and on whether people think a recovery in their underlying economies will happen in the next six months to a year," Mr. McLeod said.
Meanwhile, investors appear to be snatching up U.S. stocks in a so- called "flight to quality."
Even after the Dow Jones industrial average tumbled 554 points in late October, it came barreling back more than 300 points the next day. And last week the Dow climbed more than 200 points in a single session-proof, some say, that U.S. equities are the safest place to be.