Investing's New Frontiers
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Forget the emerging markets of China, Brazil, India and Russia. If you're looking for that extra kick in your investment portfolio, you'll have to venture to Latvia, Bangladesh, Namibia and Ivory Coast, according to a small but growing number of mutual fund managers exploring the front line of stock investing known as frontier markets.
In the past several years, many investors who put their money into emerging markets enjoyed annual returns of more than 30 percent, attracting capital from Japanese housewives and American pensioners.
But as investments in Chinese retail companies and Indian tech firms become more mainstream, and as more analysts caution that such outsize gains are not sustainable, money managers are asking: Where next?
"A lot of hidden gems are no longer hidden," said Hugh Hunter, head of global emerging markets at WestLB Mellon Asset Management. "Clearly, frontier markets are the next tier. . . . We have no option but to go forward in this area."
So don't be surprised if you start seeing unfamiliar stocks from far-flung places on statements from your emerging markets fund manager.
Aside from the need to keep looking for new investment opportunities, Hunter and others say, economic growth and development of the capital markets have turned some frontier markets into appealing, long-term investments for those with a healthy appetite for risk. Money managers view the frontier economies much as they did the emerging markets of a decade ago. They are hopping on airplanes to visit countries where as few as a half-dozen companies are listed on the local stock exchanges.
A handful of mutual fund firms, including Franklin Templeton and Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price, already offer individual investors exposure to the frontier markets via emerging market mutual funds. This month, T. Rowe launched the Africa & Middle East Fund, with investments in Kenya and Lebanon, among other places. As markets develop, T. Rowe said, the fund could potentially invest in Algeria, Botswana, Ghana, Kuwait, Mauritius, Namibia, Tunisia and Zimbabwe.
"We've seen a number of factors come together," said Joseph Rohm, an analyst for the fund. "Africa is enjoying strong GDP growth. Inflation has halved over the last five years. . . . We've seen governments spend heavily on power, electricity, roads. For the first time ever in the continent's history, that's really happening."
The fund's largest holdings include United Bank, the largest lender in Nigeria, which recently implemented reforms in the banking sector. The bank is expanding operations outside the country, T. Rowe noted.
There is no precise definition of what constitutes a frontier market vs. an emerging market. Some investors, for example, consider Israel and Korea to be developed markets, while others do not.
In general, frontier markets are smaller -- fewer companies, fewer investors, less trading. There's also less regulation, information on companies and transparency. The markets are considered to be in the nascent stages of development and even riskier than emerging markets, which, of course, are riskier than developed markets like the United States.
Think of it this way: While a money manager invested in an emerging market might worry about bubbles created by unsophisticated domestic investors, his or her counterpart in a frontier market might be concerned about a lack of local investors.
About 540 stocks are traded across 22 frontier markets, with a total market capitalization of $165 billion, according to an April report by Acadian Asset Management. By comparison, the market cap of just one Russian oil company, Lukoil, is about $70 billion, and more than 800 companies are listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, one of two exchanges in China.
Despite its size, a frontier market can reward investors handsomely. In the past three years, the Ukrainian stock market has returned 700 percent. It has risen about 160 percent in the past year, while the market in Slovenia gained 110 percent. Botswana returned about 90 percent, and Bangladesh advanced 60 percent. But not all are winners. The Jamaican exchange is down 4 percent this year, though it gained 150 percent in 2003 and 2004 combined.
The S&P/IFC Global Frontier Markets index, which covers the stock markets of 22 countries, gained 49 percent in the year ended Aug. 31. That compares with 16 percent for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index during the same period.
But numerous potential downfalls exist in frontier markets. One big concern is the lack of "liquidity," or the ability to buy and sell stocks quickly. Hunter of WestLB Mellon said it recently took him close to a month to get out of a single position in a frontier market in Europe.
There is also the risk of wild fluctuations in foreign-exchange rates, which can unexpectedly lower the value of investments. The value of the peso in Argentina, for example, plummeted five years ago when the government was forced to devalue the currency during the largest foreign debt default in history.
Money managers have to ask themselves fundamental questions. "What are the rules that allow me to get in and out quickly?" said Alka Banerjee, vice president of global index management for Standard & Poor's. "Is there a derivatives market which allows me to hedge my exposure? These are the kinds of infrastructure that a stock market needs for it to become basically more accessible to any global investor."
One benefit investors should consider, noted Rohm of T. Rowe, is the frontier markets' low correlation to developed markets, offering diversification to individual portfolios.
Many emerging markets fell during the turmoil sparked by U.S. mortgage and credit markets this summer. Not so frontier markets. One reason is that they often deal only in equities and bonds and don't have derivatives markets. Many of the exotic securities backed by subprime mortgages, the catalyst for the credit crisis, are traded in derivatives markets. "They have no exposure to these sort of instruments," Rohm said.
On the other hand, many frontier-market economies are dependent on commodities. While raw materials and oil have high prices now, volatile commodity prices and a reliance on commodity exports have been a source of risk for developing countries. But some frontier countries are widening the base of their economies.
Debt relief from the World Bank has freed up African governments to spend their money on infrastructure, said Rohm, a native of South Africa who has traveled extensively across the continent. The emergence of the middle-class consumer has created opportunities for consumer-oriented companies.
"It's very visible," said Rohm, who recently returned from a trip to Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Before, "you wouldn't have seen people walking around with mobile phones. There are a lot of new cars on the road. You see new roads being built. You see new factories being built . . . managements are very happy to meet with investors. They're producing regular financial statements, which allows us to do due diligence on these companies. "