My Contrarian Take On Emerging Markets

It is exceedingly valuable to keep an eye on what’s going on abroad. Most of the world’s business transactions take place, after all, without the U.S. on either side of the trade. Our economy, at some $17.3 trillion annually, is less than a quarter of the earth’s total output. Or, to put it another way, 78% of the world’s business is none of ours.

So when the United States economy takes a breather from reality, as it seems to be these days, it’s a wise bet to look for opportunities abroad.


This hasn’t always been so easy. But today, with new financial products and ever more participation in equity markets, you can allocate part of your portfolio to places you’d need Google Maps to find just as easily as you can order an Uber, get movie tickets or buy shares in Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ). Some sophisticated investors, through services like Interactive Brokers, can directly participate in major foreign markets. But even that’s not needed anymore. Your regular brokerage account can provide all the international access you need.

A quick look at the data shows fairly anemic growth among most major industrialized countries. And even where the data at first appears decent, it hardly passes muster on closer inspection.

Take Spain. Its growth rate was an annualized 3.5% in the fourth quarter of 2015. That ain’t bad. Spanish industrial production in December rose 2.9% from the year before, indicating that purchasing managers are placing orders and consumer demand is rising. Consumer prices are trending downward, so inflation is clearly not a problem. Unemployment in Spain, however, is higher than anywhere else in the developed world except for Greece and South Africa.

This comparison between countries takes a great deal of painstaking care and time. And what I have seen leads me to conclude that long-term investments in the equity markets of emerging economies offer the best opportunity for standout gains.

This is a highly contrarian position.

Let me be clear: The growth picture in these countries isn’t exactly bright. Strong growth worldwide is elusive. China’s, for instance, is at a 25-year low. In fact, many China experts have said for decades that if China’s growth drops below 7% the country will fall into civil unrest. China is just under 7%, and these predictions might well prove correct.

Russia and Brazil are in recession. Brazil, a country whose shares I have recommended, has and will continue to have extraordinary potential because of its rich natural resources. So, too, will Russia, but at present the huge drop in oil prices and its president’s increasing anti-Western posture has isolated it politically as well as economically.

The remaining letter in the so-called BRIC nations, I, stands for India. This nation, too, has overwhelming promise. But the economy is so massively overregulated that the organic growth of all business, from the budding entrepreneur to the major corporation, just can’t seem to get out of low gear. The prime minister has all but flown the white flag on this account and doesn’t seem to have a cogent plan to get this juggernaut rolling.

And that just adds insult to injury, as emerging market currencies are basically in the dumper vis-a-vis the dollar.

Which is curious. When this happens, this normally has a serious impact. It hasn’t. Currencies are low, interest rates are rising, growth is stagnant and money is being pulled out by the hundreds of billions of dollars. These economies should be cratering. And while they have undeniably lost some ground, they have simultaneously shown remarkable resilience. I like that.

First, I renew my call on the Brazilian Small Cap ETF (NYSE: BRF) I recommended to my Game-Changing Stocks readers in October 2013. It has fared poorly along with the rest of the country. But for long-term investors, this strikes me as an alluring bargain and the chance to lock in or lower a bargain-basement cost basis.

Here are several other emerging-market opportunities I find compelling:

Overall, the easiest and most diverse play is the MCSI Emerging Markets ETF (NYSE: EEM). This is a large fund, with $18 billion in assets, that focuses on large companies in emerging markets. Remember there’s a difference between “emerging” and “frontier” markets. This fund will give your aggressive growth portfolio exposure to the best large and mid-cap companies in Asia, India, Mexico and Brazil. The top three holdings, Taiwan Semiconductor (NYSE: TSM), Samsung and Tencent Holdings (OTC: TCTZF), account for about 10% of the fund’s investments. Samsung, by the way, represents 25% of South Korean GDP. Tencent is China’s Amazon (and allows gaming). Its shares eked a modest gain last year as China’s market lost nearly 30%.

India is my third choice. Growth is strong, stronger than China, and low oil prices are keeping inflation at bay. While Prime Minister Modi hasn’t been able to push through needed reforms, the reforms are indeed needed and are ultimately inevitable. The country has to have infrastructure. The country has to have a workable tax system. The country has to lift a greater percentage of its people out of abject poverty. It can, and I think it will.

That will be good for everyone, but the companies that stand to benefit the most are India’s top banks, notably ICICI (NYSE: IBN), which is notable for its low valuation and growing insurance business, and HDFC (NYSE: HDB), which has a more robust valuation on an asset and earnings basis and, not surprisingly, has a higher net interest margin. The strong growth of the economy, projected at 7.5% with extremely low inflation, will help borrowers pay back loans. As that process happens, ICICI will be able to cover its bad loans, which should increase its book value and, eventually, lead to an uptick in earnings. These are both strong buys for aggressive growth investors with at least a two-year holding period.

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