After almost a year of selling emerging markets, investors seem to be returning in force. The latest to turn positive on the asset class is asset and wealth manager Pictet Group (AUM: 265 billion pounds) which said on Tuesday its asset management division (clarifies division of Pictet) was starting to build positions on emerging equities and local currency debt. It has an overweight position on the latter for the first time since it went underweight last July.
The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them. An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.
It’s generally accepted these days that emerging equities are cheap and that value-focused investors should consider buying. But some disagree — analysts at UBS say the alleged cheapness of EM equities rings hollow when you look at the return-on-equity on emerging companies. They don’t dispute that the market has de-rated significantly on price-earnings and price-book metrics (at 10.5 times and 1.5 times respectively, they are well below long-term averages). But they argue that these have not been excessive when compared to the decline in profitability. Emerging return-on-equity pre-crisis was usually higher than developed. Once at a lofty 17 percent, emerging ROE now languishes at 12.7 percent, almost on par with ROE for developed companies. Check out this graphic:
Investors in emerging markets are facing a tough choice. Should one buy cheap shares in the hope that poor corporate governance and profitability will improve some day? Or is it better to close one’s eyes and buy into expensively valued companies that sell mobile telephones, holidays and handbags — all the things high-spending emerging market consumers hanker after?
Emerging stocks have rallied 3 percent today after the Fed’s startling decision to leave its $85 billion-a month money-printing in place, and some markets such as Turkey are up more than 7 percent. With the first Fed hike now expected to come in 2015 and tapering starting only from December, emerging markets have effectively received a three month breather. So will the buyers return?
It’s not shaping up to be a good year for emerging equities. They are almost 3 percent in the red while their developed world counterparts have gained more than 7 percent and Wall Street is at record highs. When we explored this topic last month, what stood out was the deepening profit squeeze and steep falls in return-on-equity (ROE). The latest earnings season provides fresh proof of this trend and is handily summarized in a Morgan Stanley note which crunches the earnings numbers for the last 2012 quarter.
Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong - Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.
Is there a change of sector leadership underway within emerging markets?
For years, commodities and energy delivered world-beating returns to emerging market investors. Yet in recent years there are signs of a shift, says Todd Henry, equity portfolio specialist at T.Rowe Price.
Jim O’ Neill, creator of the BRIC investment concept, has been exasperated by repeated calls in the past to exclude one or another country from the quartet, based on either economic growth rates, equity performance or market structure. In the early years, Brazil’s eligibility for BRIC was often questioned due to its anaemic growth; then it was the turn of oil-dependent Russia. Over the past couple of years many turned their sights on India due to its reform stupor. They have suggested removing it and including Indonesia in its place.