The Best (And Cheapest) Way To Invest In Emerging Markets

You may have noticed a consistent theme here at StreetAuthority in recent months: We love emerging markets. 

My colleague Austin Hatley recently noted the strong gains investors are reaping this year with this asset class, and I weighed in on how well emerging market stocks have done over many decades.

Yet here’s a curious disconnect: Emerging markets represent 33% of all global trading activity, yet few investors have nearly that much invested in emerging-market stocks (and bonds). That figure doesn’t likely exceed 5% or 10% for most of you. But these markets have such great long-term economic growth prospects — relative to the U.S. and Europe — that you can’t afford to ignore them anymore.

To be sure, it pays to have a little expertise when navigating distant markets. Back in April, for example, I recommended a pair of excellent mutual funds. Trouble is, they carry expense ratios of 1.50% and 1.51%, respectively. That’s like paying a 1.5% annual tax every year, just for the privilege of owning them.

Of course, investors can save money by investing through exchange-traded funds (ETFs), many of which carry expense ratios in the 0.40% to 0.90% range. But you can do even better than that. A handful of emerging-market ETFs sport rock-bottom expense ratios, which means that you get to keep almost every penny that your fund has earned.  

Here’s a look at three of them.

1. Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index ETF (NYSE: VWO)
Expense ratio: 0.15%

Whenever friends ask me about investing in funds, I tell them to call Vanguard. The firm is known for extremely low expense ratios, and this fund is no exception.

The fund is a bit heavy on Asia, with a 60% weighting, as seven of the top eight holdings are in China or Taiwan. China carries ample near-term risk, due to a shaky financial system, but should still deliver outsized long-term gains as that economy eventually grows into the world’s largest. Meanwhile, Chinese stocks have been out of favor in recent quarters, and as a result, sport relatively lower price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios.

2. iShares Core MSCI Emerging Market ETF (Nasdaq: IEMG)
Expense ratio: 0.18%

While the Vanguard ETF owns nearly 1,000 emerging market companies, this fund owns a whopping 1,600 firms. Though the regional concentration of this fund is similar to the Vanguard fund, it has more exposure to small-cap companies, which are often the best growth stocks in various markets. 

For the slightly higher expense ratio, are investors getting better performance? This fund has a fairly short track record, delivering a 15.8% one-year return, according to Morningstar, compared to a 16% return for the Vanguard fund. Note that this entire category did quite well in 2009 and 2010, slumped badly in 2011 and has been slowly on the mend since. 

3. Schwab Emerging Markets Equity ETF (Nasdaq: SCHE)
Expense ratio: 0.14%

Charles Schwab is a relative latecomer to ETFs, and in a bid to build market share, slightly undercuts (or at least matches) its rivals in terms of expense ratios. However, this ETF’s portfolio is nearly identical to the other two.

It would be nice for investors to have access to low-priced ETFs that bring greater access to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. But the heavy Asia weighting for these ETFs reflects that fact that the market value of Asian emerging-market stocks is much larger. Over time, look for that gap to narrow — and for these ETFs to spread their baskets more broadly around the globe. 

Risks to Consider: Emerging markets tend to be more volatile, so the time-tested caveat of longer-term time horizons needs to be reiterated.

Action to Take –> There is no need to own two or three of these ETFs. They all serve the same purpose. Instead, choose one and also deploy resources into one of the higher priced mutual funds or higher-priced thematic ETFs (many of which focus on consumer spending, dividend growth or other angles). One solid choice: The EGShares Emerging Markets Consumer ETF (Nasdaq: ECON) which sports a 0.85% expense ratio. That’s steep, but the fund gets five stars from Morningstar and offers much needed exposure to regions outside of Asia. Latin America, for example, makes up 40% of this ETF’s portfolio.

Of course, the fact that a company isn’t based in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily make it a risky growth stock — and if you’re ignoring overseas markets, then you could be missing out on some of the market’s biggest income opportunities. All told, we’ve found 93 companies paying 12%-plus yields — and nearly a thousand more paying above 6%. That’s why we’ve created a special report that tells you everything you need to know about international high-yielders — including names and ticker symbols of some of our favorites. Click here to learn more.