Where Smart Europeans Are Investing Now (and You Should Too)

Even if you're a hemisphere away, what's been going on in Europe for well over a year now is positively terrifying. Having survived our own near-meltdown of the financial system three years ago, U.S. investors can all imagine what it must feel like for European investors -- especially those in the countries that the sovereign debt crisis has affected the most.

If you haven't completely repressed your memories of the bear market of 2008 and 2009, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that many European investors are desperately searching for ways to protect their capital. Yet amid most traditional safe havens, there's one move that might come as a shock. It's taking Europe by storm, yet it makes just as much sense for U.S. investors -- and it's an investment that's easier than ever for you to duplicate for your own portfolio.

Gimme shelter -- in dividends
Reports from several sources show that Europeans have adopted the same fanatical devotion to dividend stocks that their U.S. counterparts have had for years now. The company behind the SPDR line of exchange-traded funds says that in the first 10 days of trading in Europe, its SPDR S&P US Dividend Aristocrats ETF has attracted $100 million from investors. Although the ETF appears to be a completely separate entity, its investment objective looks identical to that of the U.S.-offered SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (NYS: SDY) : to track an index of the 60 highest-yielding Dividend Aristocrats within the broad S&P 1500 Composite index.

Clearly, Europeans must expect the same attributes that have driven U.S. investors to the SPDR fund and similar dividend ETFs, including Vanguard High Dividend Yield (NYS: VYM) , iShares DJ Select Dividend (NYS: DVY) , and Vanguard Dividend Appreciation (NYS: VIG) . Interest rates on bonds in the safer parts of Europe are just as low as they are in the U.S., and with doubts about sovereign debt spreading around the Continent, even supposedly safe countries like France have started to have questions asked about their long-term stability. For European investors who need to draw income from their portfolios, dividend stocks hold the same appeal as they do on the western side of the Atlantic.

In addition, U.S. stocks may have an added advantage for those who are worried about the euro's prospects for survival. If the euro continues to weaken, then U.S. stocks whose share prices are denominated in U.S. dollars will give European investors a boost in their returns in euro-terms. And although a stronger dollar might eventually cause many dividend-paying U.S. stocks to face export-related headwinds that challenge their long-term growth, those impacts won't be as immediate as the currency gains ETF shareholders get.

Why not stay closer to home?
One interesting thing about this phenomenon is that European investors don't appear to be looking closer to home for their safe-haven dividend stocks. By going abroad, they're passing up plenty of high-yielding stocks in their own backyards.

One particular haven for high yields comes from European bank stocks. But given that financial institutions would be at the epicenter of any potential meltdown, investors can be forgiven for thinking that high-yielding bank stocks may well be a dividend trap.

But fleeing strong, high-dividend stocks that are far removed from the financial system makes a whole lot less sense. National Grid (NYS: NGG) , for instance, is a utility -- no one's going to stop needing that company no matter what happens in Europe. Similarly, France Telecom (NYS: FTE) might inevitably see some slowdown from a deep drop in economic activity, but unless you think Europe will eventually sink into pure chaos, people are still going to want to talk to each other. Moreover, companies like Norway-born Seadrill (NYS: SDRL) have well-diversified operations that go well beyond Europe's borders.

Get paid
No matter what happens in Europe, investors have learned a valuable lesson: Dividend stocks give them the stability to let them stick with their investing plans even through hard times. That's a message that investors the whole world round can take to heart.

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has somehow never been to Europe. You can follow him on Twitter here. He owns shares of the Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of France Telecom and National Grid. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy gives you the smarts you need.

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