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Economic Insights

Many developing economies still have room for solid growth, and recent market action has created attractive debt and equity valuations.

It is easy these days to generate pessimism about emerging market investments, and it is almost surely wrong, too. To be sure, there are plenty of worries surrounding these markets. Growth rates are slowing, inflationary problems have emerged in some places, capital flight has affected others, and where China is concerned, there are suggestions of demographic problems and asset bubbles. But it would be a mistake to tar one market for the problems in another, as many seem to do these days. These economies, and their markets, are remarkably diverse. It would be an even bigger mistake to ignore the ample opportunity for growth left in these economies, especially since the asset underperformance of late has created some very favorable valuations. 

Assets prices in emerging economies, both bonds and equities, have suffered of late for two basic reasons. The most immediate is the threat of tapering of bond purchases by the Federal Reserve that would curtail the otherwise generous flow of liquidity it has long provided global markets. Investors, understandably, worry that asset pricing has depended heavily on this liquidity and have, naturally, sought safety at the least hint of the slightest interruption. Investors have, accordingly, pulled back, especially from emerging markets, where information is often scarce and where there is a history of great volatility. The second concern is more fundamental. The pace of real growth in these emerging economies has slowed, raising questions about earnings prospects and the health of their finances, public and private.1

On both counts, the negative response has gone too far. Take the tapering, for instance. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke had often indicated that the Fed would taper only gradually and would turn to subsequent measures only after a long time, waiting until 2015 at the earliest to begin raising interest rates, and then only slowly from still accommodatingly low levels. Unless markets are without any fundamental support and are truly strung out on this flow of liquidity, such a path was never likely to undercut them as dramatically as recent reactions would suggest. Nor were the first stages of tapering (even if it had occurred when it was expected, which it did not) the stuff of which shocks are made. It was suggested that if the Fed moved at all, it would reduce its bond purchase from $85 billion a month presently to $70–65 billion—still an ample flow of liquidity. And as it is, the Fed still has not even begun the policy change.2

To be sure, Bernanke is scheduled to leave office in the new year, to be replaced in all likelihood by Janet Yellen, the Fed's current vice chair. She could, of course, change policy more quickly than Bernanke intended. But that is highly unlikely. After all, she has worked hand in glove with Bernanke to create the present gradualist approach. In the unlikely event that she would want a change, she would have to shift many of the members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to do so. Since they, too, are parties to the present policy, it is hardly likely that she could do that. Moreover, her votes at past FOMC meetings suggest that she is more likely to remain accommodative for longer than Bernanke would have.3

The underlying economic fundamentals in emerging markets, too, though much changed from the salad days earlier in this century, are far less threatening than recent market responses imply. This is no place to review prospects for the long, diverse list of emerging economies and markets, especially because each has its own strengths and weaknesses. But it is possible to generalize that these economies, if no longer expanding at the breakneck pace they once were, still have much greater growth potential than the developed economies, the best of which are exhibiting only anemic rates of expansion. The commodity-based economies probably present greater reason for concern than the more broadly based emerging economies, those that are adjusting to the unfolding fundamentals of slower growth, for instance, and the challenge of the still less developed frontier economies. A cursory comparison among the well-known BRIC economies—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—might illustrate these general points, though the overall emerging universe is much broader and remarkably diverse.4

Russia and Brazil lean toward the commodities side of this division. The former, in particular, has made itself highly and needlessly dependent on oil and gas. Half the government's revenues, in fact, come from oil and gas and at least that much of the country's export earnings. Were it not that the current tensions in the Middle East have pushed up oil prices, despite the global growth slowdown, the Russian economy would be struggling, which to a degree might explain the Kremlin's geopolitical strategies. In such a state, Russia's economy, and hence most of the assets priced in it, look highly vulnerable.5

Brazil's situation is less extreme. It is more thoroughly diversified among different commodities than is Russia and more thoroughly diversified generally as an economy. But Brazil's still-heavy dependence on commodities makes it susceptible to the slow-growth global economic environment that will also surely persist. Still more, much of what previously looked like domestic development in Brazil now reveals very shallow roots. Some years ago, many saw broad-based development in the remarkable progress the country had made lifting people out of poverty. But it has become increasingly apparent that those gains came less from development than from the government's redirection of commodity export earnings to poorer families through the "family allowance program." Now with the abatement in commodity-export earnings, the government can no longer sustain this flow of support. Poverty has risen back toward its old levels, social unrest has increased in tandem, and so also has outright rioting. In this unsettling revelation, many now glimpse the old Brazil, from before the country seemed to adopt a more open, free-market orientation, with even the old problems of inflation beginning to return.6

In contrast, the slowed economic growth in India, China, and the like looks much less threatening. India has, of course, suffered an economic setback from the global slowdown and the outflows of global "hot" money during the world's recent tapering tantrums. But on a more positive side, India has concentrated more on domestic development than many emerging economies and has fostered an active middle class. No doubt India's vibrant democracy would have precluded a narrower development path, even if the authorities had wanted to pursue one. India's recent reemphasis on infrastructure spending, something the economy badly needs, reinforces that emphasis on domestic development. This orientation likely will, in time, help reduce the economy's vulnerability to global economic swings. Similarly, a recent decision by the Reserve Bank of India to allow more foreign financial institutions into the country will likely, eventually, reduce the economy's vulnerability to hot money flows.7

To be sure, India's overall real pace of growth has slowed from 8%-plus a year earlier in this century to 3.2% more recently, with an official forecast of 5.3% for next year. But even accepting the slowdown, the country's domestic development promises at least to maintain the new reduced growth rate, if not in every quarter than generally, and possibly enhance it. Meanwhile, investors should not miss the fact that such growth, though slower than previously, is still twice the pace presently maintained by the United States and that much faster than Europe's.8

China, too, has slowed. In part, the reduced rate of Chinese growth reflects the global slowdown in its export sales. But the slowdown also reflects Beijing's farsighted policy to reorient its economy from a purely export-dependent growth model to one with a broader base that includes domestic development. Despite its tendency to slow the country's pace of growth, the government has committed itself to this pro-domestic reorientation. It knows exports can no longer serve the role they once did. Indeed, Beijing has noted more than once that Chinese exports during the last 20 years have gone from a negligible part of the global mix to fully 12% of all exports sold in the world. Chinese officials know that this figure cannot rise to 24% anytime soon, if ever. Domestic development, thus, is imperative.9

Some skeptics, however, question whether China can sustain even a slowed pace of growth, whatever the shift toward domestic development. These skeptics point at times to the aging of China's population due to the country's long-standing one-child policy, and they see a time when the country will face troubles implicit in an overhang of elderly and a relatively reduced work force to support it. Though this is not a small issue, it is prone to exaggeration, especially for the years immediately ahead. China is indeed aging, but the working-aged proportion of its population is still much larger relative to its retired population than, say, in the United States, and still larger than in Europe, which has even an older demographic. China will have a relative abundance of labor compared with the developed economies for at least a decade to come.

Other skeptics point to China's overbuilt residential real estate, and they worry that the country will suffer generally as this bubble will burst eventually. It is easy for Americans, still smarting from their own recent real estate bust, to see disaster in such circumstances. But China's situation is different from that in the United States during 2007–08. Chinese homeowners are not nearly as leveraged as were their American counterparts. In China, by law, a buyer most put down at least 20% on his or her first home and 50% on a second home. The debt burden in China lies less on households than on the provincial governments that were party to the development. Though this debt overhang is hardly welcome or harmless, it is much easier for the central government to handle than the household debt was for the authorities in the United States during its real estate bust. It is better circumscribed, too.10

Meanwhile, China faces an imperative that will force the authorities to do whatever is necessary to maintain relatively rapid growth rates. According to the central government, approximately a million Chinese a month migrate from the countryside into the cities. To give work to this flow of jobseekers, the country must grow at 6% a year at least. Having staked its legitimacy on its ability to provide people with jobs and economic hope, the government in Beijing cannot accept failure on this front. It is well aware that slower growth will create social discord that it can ill afford, and, if recent Chinese history is any indication, riots as well. Faced with this political imperative, more manageable demographics than the skeptics fear, and more contained real estate troubles, it looks as though China will make its targeted 6–7% annual rate of real growth. The figure, to be sure, is well down from the 10–12% rate of the not too distant past, but it is still more than three times the pace likely in the United States.11

Against these admittedly uneven prospects, emerging markets offer very attractive valuations. Sovereign emerging market debt, for instance, pays a handsome yield premium. With a duration of less than five years, the index of such bonds offers yield spreads of 500 basis points or more over comparable Treasuries. That is a wider spread than junk bonds in the domestic U.S. market, even though this sovereign emerging markets index has a 'BBB' average rating. On top of this attraction, two additional considerations stand as noteworthy. First, most of these countries have stronger finances than the United States. China, for instance, has more than $3.0 trillion in foreign reserves, while, on average, emerging economies have public debt outstanding equal to only 35.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP). That is about one-third the relative burden faced by the United States. Even India, one of the most indebted in the emerging world, has a public debt burden of 68.3% of its GDP, still almost one-third lower than America's burden. Second, with adequate growth prospects even at current reduced rates, chances are that the currencies of these countries will appreciate; certainly that is a greater likelihood than further depreciation.12

If anything, valuations on emerging market equities are more compelling. As a whole, the benchmark MSCI Emerging Markets Index13 carries a price about 10.5 times the consensus expectations on earnings for this year. That amounts to a discount of almost 35% from the price-to-earnings multiple on the overall MSCI EAFE Index14 of developed market equities. The relationship between these two valuation gauges has varied considerably over time. Emerging market multiplies have at times risen to equal that of developed markets. At their lows (during the Asian contagion crisis of the late 1990s), they fell to half the developed markets' multiple. But within this admittedly wide range, the probabilities going forward suggest that the difference between these two multiples is more likely to narrow than widen, especially for those markets pursuing broad-based development. It is worth noting, too, that these attractive valuations exist even as many of these emerging economies maintain growth rates at multiples of those in the developed economies, with stronger finances as well as better long-term prospects.

There are risks, of course—there are always risks. But valuations alone suggest that investors give emerging bonds and equities a second or third look, especially those economies pursuing broad-based development. As ever, these investments are not for everyone—not for those without tolerance for volatility and not for those with a short-time horizon that cannot wait for valuation effects and favorable fundamentals to develop. But for others, a well-diversified portfolio of emerging market assets, chosen selectively from a diverse universe that goes well beyond the BRIC countries, offers an opportunity that warrants attention.


1 For detail, see, J. J. Zhang, "Emerging-Market Fears Hide Enticing Valuations," Market Watch, August 16, 2013; Reuters, Update, September 6, 2013; and Samuel Rines, "Hitting a BRIC Wall, The National Interest, October 17, 2013.
2 Federal Reserve.
3 Federal Reserve.
4 "Breaking the BRIC Piggy Banks," The Economist, October 11, 2013.
5 "When Giants Slow Down," The Economist, July 27, 2013.
6 For more detail, see, Liam Denning, "Shutting Down Emerging Markets," The Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2013; Blake Schmidt, "Brazil Real Drops on Speculation Central Bank Will Limit Advance," Bloomberg, October 14, 2013; Thierry Ogier and Lucien Chauvin, "Brazil Unveils Own 'Tapering' Plan," Emerging Markets, October 10, 2013; and Milton Ezrati, "Same Old Samba for Brazil," Economic Insights, November 15, 2012.
7 Elizabeth Owen, "India Opens Doors to Foreign Banks," Emerging Markets, October 12, 2013.
8 Owen, op. cit.
9 Elliot Wilson, "China Slowdown Threatens Asia Crisis," Emerging Markets, October 12, 2013, and Shamim Adam, "China-to-India Price Jump Risks Growth as World Outlook Dims," Bloomberg, October 14, 2013.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Stephen Yeats, "Mapping and Navigation the Emerging Market Fixed Income Universe," SSgA Capital Insights, September 2013.
13 The MSCI Emerging Markets Index is a free float-adjusted market capitalization index that is designed to measure equity market performance in the global emerging markets. As of June 2006, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index consisted of the following 25 emerging market country indexes: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey.
14 The MSCI EAFE® [Europe, Australasia, Far East] Index is a free float-adjusted market capitalization index that is designed to measure developed market equity performance, excluding the United States and Canada.

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