One of the big advantages of investing in exchange traded funds (ETF) is that these instruments represent a cost-effective and sometimes conservative approach to gaining exposure to international markets. And with so many international markets, both developed and emerging, enjoying banner years in 2009, U.S. investors should bone up on a few offerings from the world of global ETFs.

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Get out your ETF passport and let's have a look at three international ETFs that may offer investors returns that are worth traveling for.

iShares MSCI Australia Index (NYSE:EWA) Assets: $2.45 billion Expense Ratio: 0.52%
iShares MSCI Mexico Investable Market Index (NYSE:EWW) Assets: $943 million Expense Ratio: 0.52%
iShares MSCI Pacific Ex-Japan (NYSE:EPP) Assets: $4.14 billion Expense Ratio: 0.50%

No Recession Here
Australia is one of the few developed countries that is expected to grow faster than other countries with positive GDP growth of 0.8% forecast for 2009, and expected to rise to 2.4% in 2010 and 3.5% in 2011. And after paring interest rates to their lowest levels in 50 years from September, 2008 to April, 2009, the Reserve Bank of Australia boosted rates in October and earlier this month. Another rate hike is expected in December.

The Aussie dollar is one of the strongest currencies in the world, and that strength should continue as gold prices move higher. Australia is one of the biggest gold exporters in the world, so it's not surprising to see the iShares MSCI Australia Index hold big stakes in mining firms like BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) and Rio Tinto (NYSE:RTP).

Most of EWA's assets are allocated in the financial sector at 45.30% and 24.70% in the materials sector (as of December 30, 2009).

Staying Close to Home
Mexico shares a border with the U.S. and is one of our biggest trading partners, but for some reason the iShares MSCI Mexico Investable Market Index doesn't get a lot of press in comparison to other Latin America ETFs. Despite the fact that Fitch cut its credit ratings on Mexico to BBB, some fund managers expect the peso to rise by up to 20% against the U.S. dollar over the next year.

Mexico's economy is in a recession fueled by widening deficits and declining oil production, but EWW has still managed to gain 50% year-to-date. On the surface, it may appear that this rally is nothing more than a case of Mexico following other markets higher, but if oil prices surge or deficits decline, EWW may have more positive returns in store for investors.

There are a lot of moving parts with that thesis, so it might be best to keep an eye on the peso in the near-term before jumping right into a position in EWW.

Asia sans Japan
Not to kick Japan while it is down, but it doesn't take much to find a better country to invest in the Pacific Rim. The iShares MSCI Pacific Ex-Japan tracks stocks in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore. We previously mentioned the iShares MSCI Singapore Index (NYSE: EWS) as the ETF way to play Singapore and EWS and EPP are both up about 60% year-to-date.

EPP is Australia-heavy and holds a lot of the same stocks as does EWA, but if you want exposure to Australia without focusing your attention exclusively down under, EPP may be worth considering. One caveat: sector diversification leaves something to be desired as materials and financials comprise more than 60% of EPP's holdings.

The Bottom Line: Hard to Bet Against Australia
Australia remains one of the most compelling international markets to invest in and if commodities continue to fan the flames of a global equity market rally, you can be sure Australia is going to benefit. That's makes EWA and EPP the safer plays here, but that doesn't mean your speculative side should ignore Mexico. If any of trouble spots we mentioned earlier become positive catalysts, EWW could keep moving higher. (For more on ETFs, check out ETFs Vs. Index Funds: Quantifying The Differences.)

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