Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Overvalued Emerging Market

It is easy to be attracted to emerging market mutual funds in your portfolio. If you are investing through a 401(k), you have noticed in your last statement how well they have been doing. Your US equity funds have done well over the same quarter or even perhaps YTD. But the contrast with the mutual funds that might be available to you that invest in other countries might have caught your eye.

Return envy is still one of the primary weakness that investors have. They see a fund that has done well, in this case, almost the entire sector, and we jump, feet first without knowing whether there is a shallow bottom or not. In the world of emerging market mutual funds, that bottom might be closer than you realize.
Emerging market mutual funds have a great deal of headwind to navigate as they get those returns. And just like the days of yore - only two years ago or so - risk is the reason why. Those risks are numerous.

First is the money issue. No country can be considered a viable investment unless they have a good banking system. That statement could be the reason why many stateside investors have looked to other countries for their investment needs. But in truth, the US does have a better banking system than most countries abroad. In its defense, it is able to survive a serious economic blow, put together a plan to recover from it and, although it can be criticized for many of its moves of late, it will still survive even if it is has already shown much of its financial hand. The simplest way to do this si compare a developed and mostly mature system such as that of the US and those in that outperforming emerging market fund.

The second issue is politics. We might have what seems to be a chaotic and disagreeable political system. But because of that robustness, we can be assured that even though we don't know what taxes will be, the discourse on how much we pay will be discussed at length and resolved with compromise. In addition to how the government operates, it is still a business-centric governing body that even when it falters in doing what it considers right, it does what it considers best for the creation of jobs. And even if the US seems to be burdened with regulations, many of which are direct and legislative reactions to abuses, countries overseas have placed these sorts of restrictions before the fact. This keeps investments and innovation under the control and purview of whomever is in charge at the time.

The third issue is economic freedom. While we take capitalism for granted, it si not the case in the largest emerging markets. It is often difficult to comprehend that a country the size of China or India could be considered emerging. But the definition of emerging suggests that while growth seems to be on pace and often well-beyond that of the US and Europe, it is done without the transparency that we enjoy. If China has the ability to drop a trillion dollars in cash into its economy - something a developed country would need to borrow to do - this offers a glimpse of instability.

The fourth issue is risk. By risk I mean your ability to predict and project how much you might make and how much you might lose. Most of us don't do this sort of metric exercise prior to shifting our money from one place to another. We look at all of the basics: return, tenure, return, cost, return, risk, return. And then we buy.

Understanding the risk in an emerging market mutual fund is much harder because of the reasons I have already discussed. But risk comes in numerous forms and the one most likely to derail you is diversity. You may, through your target date funds, your index funds, and even your bond funds, all of which may bill themselves as domestic, may have placed some of your money in markets your are currently looking at with envious eyes. Diversity in a portfolio simply suggests that of there is trouble in one place, not all of the investments you own will be impacted the same. Some will fair better than others.

The fifth issue is investor impatience. Most emerging markets are not near maturity and therefore have a period of time to traverse before they become more reliable. Political unrest needs to be quelled, businesses need to feel as though their investments are safe from political unrest, money needs to be available to be borrowed and infrastructures are solid enough to make it all possible. This is difficult feat in developed and relatively stable economies. Imagine a country on less solid footing, unable to embrace different political outcomes and survive them more or less intact. Which means, the investor who is willing to pay the higher-than-normal fees for such funds, need to wait a much longer time to get back what they have invested in portfolio risk and cost.

This is not to say you shouldn't have emerging market funds. Ten to even twenty percent of a portfolio would be acceptable in most instances. Just be prepared for cloudy days and they will come and you will want to sell. But the developed world needs emerging countries to buy their goods. In that sense, the investment becomes symbiotic and over the long term, you will probably be pleased. But be warned.

(One final note: the exchange traded fund - ETF - market for emerging market investments has grown substantially. In this author's opinion, the risk of selling too frequently and chasing minute returns, as ETF investors are more likely to do,  poses just as much a risk as you would face if you simple held this investment for a longer period of time.)

No comments: