Should You Still Invest in Emerging Markets?

Even as investors spent much of the last decade licking their wounds with U.S. investments after the dot-com bubble was pricked, there were still solid gains to be had for investors willing to venture abroad. Indeed, the concept of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) investing was a savvy play then, at least until the decade’s end, when the trend petered out.

In their place, investors started looking to the next wave of emerging economies. BRIC investing was replaced by CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa), as economists took note of the dynamic growth prospects in those countries. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit four of them (all except Indonesia and South Africa), and relayed my impressions in a column written about two years ago.

At the time, Colombia, Turkey and Vietnam seemed most appealing to me. Not based on their respective market valuations, but because of their long-term demographic trends and geographic positioning.

Since then, global markets have wobbled, most recently caught in a vice by events in Greece and Southern Europe. And that’s certainly affected emerging markets.

How have these markets fared since I wrote that column in August 2010?

Roughly speaking, it’s been a wash. Egypt’s political turmoil has damaged the country’s investments as it makes a transition to newly-elected President Mohamed Morsi. This could spell danger, because the top Egyptian companies were closely aligned with the deposed Mubarak administration.

Stubbornly high inflation has been besetting Vietnam as it struggles to strike a balance between Communism and a free enterprise economy. Equally challenging, Vietnam, like India, lacks the infrastructure to handle sustained growth, so inflationary bottlenecks become inevitable. Still, it’s important to pay attention to Vietnam: the ingredients remain in place for sustained economic growth — once the current capacity constraints are addressed.

For now, Indonesia remains as the most opportune place in Asia for investors. That 17% gain you see in the table above — after considerable gains before that — reflects the increasingly business-friendly policies the Indonesian government has been pursuing in the past few years.

So how do these CIVETS compare to the BRIC nations? Well, you would have been better off avoiding the BRICs, as they all have slumped in value during the past two years.

The other question that comes to mind: How have emerging markets in general performed compared to the United States? After all, I used to be part of the chorus of analysts who believe that as emerging markets increase trade, they in fact, will start to “decouple” from more advanced markets, enabling them to rally, even when big trading partners in the United States and Europe face challenges.

Well, I think differently now. The more advanced economies have been arguably weaker than many of these emerging economies as measured by gross domestic product growth rates, but they have surely been havens in the storm. Despite the myriad economic headwinds, developed economies have been the better place to invest during the past two years.

In fact, the U.S. stock market has delivered some of the strongest returns since Labor Day weekend of 2010, and even Germany’s DAX and England’s FTSE-100 have managed to rise during the same period.

Risks to Consider: The old axiom remains true that “when developed economies sneeze, emerging markets catch a cold.” This means that if the global economy faces further challenges in the quarters ahead, then you still need to limit your emerging-market exposure.

Action to Take –> Unless, of course, you measure your wealth-building strategies in a matter of years, not weeks or months. Because as you look out on the horizon, there is no question that many of the CIVETS nations — and even some of the BRICs — could represent the most dynamic aspects of the global economy.

Let’s use Turkey and the United States as an example. The U.S. economy is only growing at a 2% clip right now, and even when the global economy is humming along, it’s unlikely that our already-large economy can grow much more than 3% or 3.5% a year. Meanwhile, Turkey has the infrastructure and trade relationships in place to boost its economy at a faster pace, perhaps by 4% or 5%. So because the Turkish stocks have underperformed U.S. stocks by 38 percentage points since August 2010, Turkey currently offers the better long-term bargain.

By extension, other emerging markets should find similar appeal — if they have undergone a recent period of weakness. Looking at the BRIC nations, you can’t help but notice the weak performance of Brazilian stocks. That economy has slowed sharply in 2012, in part due to the hangover from a recent boom. Yet, economists believe that its hosting of the next Olympic Games and World Cup, along with government stimulus measures, should pave the way for a rebound.