Investing in rapidly developing economies is an inherently risky proposition. That is why more than a decade ago, investors embraced what seemed a prudent approach: focusing on the BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — which have the largest and most liquid stock markets in the emerging-market world.
Late last year, though, the BRIC strategy hit a wall as a worrisome series of developments unfolded.
First, as the Chinese economy continued to decelerate, global growth expectations dropped, pushing down commodity prices. Then crude oil fell more than 40 percent in the fourth quarter, dropping below $50 last week.
As a result, share values tumbled for mutual funds and exchange-traded funds that invest in markets closely dependent on oil and other commodities. The iShares MSCI Brazil Capped E.T.F., for instance, fell by about 15 percent in the fourth quarter, while the iShares MSCI Russia Capped E.T.F. was down by more than 30 percent. That put pressure on BRIC-oriented funds in general, which sank 7 percent last year, more than double the loss experienced by the broader emerging markets.
“The heyday of the BRICs — that’s over,” said Arjun Jayaraman, head of quantitative research at Causeway Capital Management in Los Angeles.
Mr. Jayaraman said that back in the 2000s, the BRIC markets represented opportunities driven by the so-called commodity supercycle. That was when rapid growth in countries like China and India drove up demand for natural resources, turbocharging the fortunes of developing nations that were big exporters of raw materials. Among the winners were Russia and Latin America, including Brazil.
In general, strong growth shored up emerging-market currencies, improved the financial standing of developing nations and raised corporate profits in these regions. That virtuous cycle, though, has now morphed into a more vicious one.
“China was a real locomotive for the commodity-exporting countries in the emerging world,” noted Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS. But with that engine slowing considerably, those commodity-producing nations “don’t face quite as clear a future as they once did.”
That’s why investors can no longer focus merely on the biggest markets or even just the commodity-producing nations.
“When the old BRIC theme was going full throttle, it lifted the boats of countries that supplied into that commodity story,” said Henrik Strabo, head of international investments at Rainier Investment Management in Seattle. “But now you’re seeing a divergence in the emerging markets, and you have to be very selective.”
Investors should start by focusing on countries that are net importers of oil and other commodities, money managers say. Falling energy costs are expected to bolster profits of companies based in those markets, and households should benefit because consumers will have more money to spend on discretionary items. Government budgets are also likely to get some help, Mr. Strabo said.
India is a prime example. “India is far and away the best macroeconomic story among the major emerging markets,” said Lewis Kaufman, manager of the Thornburg Developing World fund. With oil and commodity prices sinking, that story is likely to become better.
Unlike China, which has excess capacity in major sectors of its economy, India is only now embarking on major infrastructure initiatives, just as prices on steel, copper and other commodities are weaker than they have been in several years.
What’s more, India is the world’s third-biggest importer of oil. “As oil prices have fallen, that has helped lower India’s current account deficit to under 2 percent of G.D.P.,” Mr. Kaufman said. Concerns about inflation have eased while the government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been able to reduce fuel subsidies without hurting economic growth.
One way to tell which economies are more fundamentally sound is to look at the volatile currency markets.
For much of the past decade, the currencies of developing nations enjoyed relative strength, as these countries’ economies were growing faster than those of the United States and Europe while also being less mired in debt. But as global economic risks have risen, investors have begun shifting out of emerging-market currencies and into the United States dollar.
Consider Russia, where it now takes twice as many rubles to buy $1 as it did a year ago. Not only has this hurt Russian consumers, but it also forced the country’s central bank to raise interest rates sharply last month, to 17 percent from 10.5 percent, to protect the currency.
If other central banks in the emerging-market world followed Russia’s lead, the higher rates could further brake economies that were already slowing.
“We are entering a period of rising rates, so people need to gravitate toward the stronger currencies and countries that are running current-account and fiscal surpluses,” said Mr. Jayaraman at Causeway, adding that he liked Taiwan and South Korea for that reason. At the same time, he said investors should be careful with Russia, Turkey and possibly Brazil.
What are other economic signs to look for?
“You want to see a vibrant consumer that’s benefiting from what’s happening” in countries with strong finances and therefore relatively stable currencies, said Michael Kass, manager of the Baron Emerging Markets fund. In addition to India, Mr. Kass cited the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan as examples.
Edward A. Gray, co-manager of the Delaware International Value Equity fund, also thought that the Philippines and India looked attractive. But, he said, “we’re not gung-ho to increase our emerging-market exposure right away.”
Mr. Gray noted that years of cheap credit had sent money pouring into the developing world, making some of these countries vulnerable to turbulence now. “It’s still an awfully troublesome time for this part of the world,” he said.
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