INVESTORS in most of the world's stock markets have good reason to feel financially chipper these days. Share prices are reaching new highs, propelled by steady global economic growth, low interest rates, privatization of state-run enterprises in many nations of the third world, and widespread political stability.
Many analysts expect the upswing to continue into 1996. But their optimism is painted with caution. ''A [United States or global] market correction could still come at any time,'' says Arthur J. Bonnel, head of Bonnel Growth Fund, a mutual fund based in San Antonio, Texas.
Mr. Bonnel, however, adds: ''I just don't see any major problems around the world right now'' that could derail international markets. Bonnel prefers to buy stock of US companies that have a hefty international reach, rather than shares in firms headquartered in a foreign country.
The collapse of the Mexican peso in late 1994 and early 1995, combined with lackluster market performance in many third-world nations last year, scared away many investors from global markets.
But once burned does not necessarily mean gone for good. Many financial institutions are again slowly shifting back into overseas markets, notes Peggy Farley, managing director of the investment house AMAS Securities Inc., in New York.
Share prices are reaching record highs in many countries, especially in the markets of most industrial nations.
The new interest is cutting two ways.
Many US investors are again buying overseas equities. ''And many foreign investors are becoming more interested in the US market,'' Ms. Farley says. Indeed, much of the recent excitement in the US high-technology sector reflects overseas purchases of US equities, according to Farley. ''You can see it in trading patterns. There's frequently lots of volatility in the [US] market - that is, until it's time for the Europeans to sit down and eat dinner. Then our markets start to calm.''
World equity markets turned in solid gains during September, according to Morgan Stanley Capital International, a New York-based financial-services firm. Morgan Stanley's World Index, for example, rose 2.8 percent in September, setting a new high. (See box.) The index is widely used by institutional investors. Strong gains in Scandinavia, as well as continued market strength in the US, pushed the index above its previous high in July. The MSCI World Index rose 5.2 percent during the third quarter ending
Sept. 30, much of that gain coming from the developed industrial nations (and established stock markets) of Europe. Emerging markets showed weaknesses in September, and during the third quarter.
For the first nine months of 1995, the global index rose 13.77 percent. The emerging-market index was down a little more than 5 percent. The US stock market, as measured by the Standard & Poor's 500 index, has risen about 25 percent during the same period.
Experts note there are definite risks in overseas investing. These can include political instability, less restrictive stock-market oversight, and lax accounting standards. Still, selective overseas markets continue to look promising, says David Harris, a principal of the investment firm Stein Roe Global Capital Management, New York. About the only economic factor that could reverse the current trend, Mr. Harris says , would be ''a major reversal of the dollar's strength.'' But that seems unlikely, he says, given efforts to shore up the dollar by the Federal Reserve Board over the past year.
Strong dollar plays role
A higher dollar, while attracting overseas capital to the US, particularly the US bond market, also makes US exports more expensive. Contrariwise, many overseas firms become more competitive in international trade, and this potentially boosts their profit margins.
While price-to-earnings ratios of stock are roughly in parity between US and European firms, they are far lower in some emerging nations. Moreover, stock price-to-corporate-book-value ratios and stock price-to-company-cash-flow ratios currently favor overseas companies, says Harris.
''There's a strong feeling among many investors that Europe's economy may be picking up, while the US economy may be slowing down,'' says Hildegard Zagorski, an analyst with investment house Prudential Securities Inc.
Economies going gangbusters
''The US and Canadian economies are slowing, although not badly. But the Asian economy, excluding Japan, is going gangbusters,'' says David Wyss, an economist with DRI-McGraw Hill Inc., a consulting firm in Lexington, Mass. ''China's economy is running away. Europe's economy is better than expected and perhaps coming back a little.'' The upshot, says Mr. Wyss: Global growth should continue for the next year or so, ''with no recession in sight.''
Robert ''Jay'' Pelosky, Latin American research director for Morgan Stanley Group Inc., has been urging investors to put more money in Brazil and Mexico. ''Brazil, like Mexico, will rebound in 1996 from its current slowdown,'' he maintains. ''The Brazilian market remains 22 percent below [the September 1994] US dollar high and is trading at 14 times estimated 1996 earnings with 20 percent real earnings growth.''
Mr. Pelosky writes that Mexico in 1996-97 ''could become a stronger economic and political system than Mexico of 1993-94. The external imbalances that plagued Mexico would be gone or substantially reduced.''