Key Points:

With share prices tumbling, the world's financial markets in turmoil and even the bluest of blue-chip banks in trouble, many people may be considering mattresses as the safest option for keeping their hard-earned money safe.

But others are snapping up bargains they hope will reward them richly when the recovery occurs.

For them, the decision is not about safety, but opportunity. Where can they get the best share market rewards - New Zealand or overseas?

Investors shouldn't be put off by the current turbulence, says David McEwen, chief investment officer of IRG, because not every market is affected to the same extent and the concept of spreading risk still applies.

"Some countries, such as India and China, will still show economic growth and others, such as Britain and the US, do not," he says.

Market downturns are a fact of investing life and McEwen is confident this one will pass. "That means investors who can stand a bit of volatility and are prepared to be patient should think about buying at current depressed levels."

A supporter of overseas investment, McEwen says: "The majority of your money should be overseas because the New Zealand market is very skinny.

"Beyond the top 50 New Zealand companies there are very slim pickings in terms of quality."

Profitable sectors, such as pharmaceuticals and defence, are missing from the Kiwi market.

In an investment guide on Guide 2 Money (www.guide2.co.nz), Paul Ambrose lays out the reasons for spreading investment horizons past New Zealand. The main one is diversification.

The New Zealand market (183 shares) is just 0.05 per cent of the world market, and Australia, with more than 1500 shares, accounts for just 2 per cent of the global total.

"A truly diversified portfolio will include funds from throughout the world," says Ambrose.

But Bruce Sheppard, chairman of the Shareholders Association, disagrees, saying you should not invest in something you don't understand, or don't have enough information on.

"How do you judge a Chinese company - whether it's good or bad?" he says. "You've got a much better chance of judging a New Zealand company.

"Why would you buy Wal-Mart when you can buy The Warehouse?

"When you go into The Warehouse you can look at the goods on the shelves and how they are laid out.

"You can get a feel if the stuff is moving out of the shop. You do get an instinctive feel for how the business is doing.

"You can also eyeball the people, you can go to an annual meeting and listen to the chief executive and the board - you can make judgments about whether they have integrity, whether they have the skills. You can never get that when you go offshore."

Carmel Fisher, managing director of Fisher Funds, has some sympathy for the view. "If you look at some of the disasters of the past three years or so, they have often happened because investors haven't known their investment at all.

"They have not understood what they have invested in."

Investors can judge an overseas company's numbers from its annual reports and other documents but "numbers are not what it's all about," says Fisher.

"I think there's some safety for New Zealand investors in investing in their own backyard because they can know something about the business and the people behind it."

Another problem is that do-it-yourself investors tend to look only at the big, well-publicised foreign shares, which may not be where the best returns are to be made, she says.

But at this point Fisher parts company with Sheppard.

"If you have adequate information - I would say overseas shouldn't be any riskier than it is in New Zealand."

One way of getting that information, she says, is by investing through managed funds that send analysts to visit foreign companies and carry out "exactly the same eyeballing" that Sheppard recommends.

Those analysts will then get the feel for the business and the people behind it, and that can make all the difference.

Getting that good-quality information reduces risk at all times - including during upheavals.

"None of us can possibly know what markets are going to do and how central banks throughout the world are going to act, but we can narrow our focus to what Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest people, calls our 'circle of competence'," says Fisher.

McEwen is a fan of direct investing, rather than managed funds, but says index funds can be a good option for those wanting to be more passive investors. Investing in the large Australian companies is also a good way to gain exposure further abroad, he says, as most operate in several countries and are truly international.

Fisher says: "If an investor completes as much analysis on an international investment as they would for a domestic investment, there shouldn't be a materially higher level of risk."

TAXING QUESTION

Last year, New Zealand's tax rules on foreign investment changed.

Anyone investing less than $50,000 overseas, or investing solely in most Australian stocks, is still taxed on their dividends.

But investors with non-Australian foreign assets worth more than $50,000 are now taxed on an amount determined by one of several methods. Most come under the fair dividend rate (FDR), and are taxed on 5 per cent of the value of their investments at the start of the year.

If they make a loss they pay no tax. The cost method, which levels tax on an assumed 5 per cent increase in value each year, plus an allowance made for any shares sold within a year of purchase, may apply for investments that are not listed on a recognised stock exchange.

Investors holding more than 10 per cent of a foreign company are still taxed under the controlled foreign company rules.

Inland Revenue advises that investors who have a choice of calculation methods should consult their financial adviser.