Emerging markets have been hit hard this year, undermined by falling commodity prices and the prospect that rising U.S. interest rates could lure investment funds away from developing economies.
For years, the emerging markets with the highest profiles were the four nations dubbed the “BRICs”: Brazil, Russia, India, and China. But these economies have taken a beating along with the other developing markets. In fact, last month Goldman Sachs, whose economist Jim O’Neill coined the term “BRICs” back in 2001, folded its fund for investing in the BRICs, which had struggled in recent years, into a larger emerging-markets fund.
Jan Randolph, director of sovereign risk for economic consultancy IHS, linked the emerging markets’ woes to China’s effort to switch its economy’s focus from heavy industry and construction toward consumer goods and services.
“That’s taken the wind out of the sails of commodity prices and commodity demand, and we’ve seen the consequences across emerging markets,” Randolph said.
Emerging markets benefited as central banks’ easing policies sent investors in search of better returns. Now, as the Federal Reserve start boosting interest rates, emerging markets “also have to anticipate the end of a global tidal wave of cheap credit,” Randolph said.
Of course, the Federal Reserve has been signaling the approach of higher interest rates for some time now, which may have given global investors time to prepare. But Mauro Guillen, a professor of international management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and director of the school’s Lauder Institute, said monetary conditions around the world “are so exceptional because of the [quantitative easing] rounds, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
“We’ve never been in a situation where there’s so much uncertainty as to currency and as to interest rates in the world and when they’re going to go up,” said Guillen, pictured at left. “Do we have enough of a sense to understand what’s going to happen when the U.S. starts to raise rates? We’re talking about millions of investors who are going to be reacting to that decision.”
Deciding Which Markets to Enter
While emerging markets may not be the surefire bet they seemed a few years ago, economists and consultants say the potential of those markets is too big for multinational companies to limit their activities to developed economies. Still, the volatility this year underscores the importance of picking the best emerging markets for your company to do business in.
“In 2015 there has been a good amount of turbulence that does create some challenges in deciding where to go and how extensively to go,” said Larry Harding, vice chairman and executive director for corporate development at consultancy Radius. “It’s not quite as straightforward and risk-free as it was for a whole bunch of years.”
When emerging markets were expanding rapidly, “the growth rates were so strong you didn’t have to worry about a whole lot of factors; you would probably do reasonably well with an expansion,” Harding said.
Now that growth has slowed, “to be successful, you need to be much more old-fashioned strategic,” he said. “You need a better mousetrap, whatever you’re going to sell, goods or services.
“We still see an enormous appetite for global expansion,” he added. “Where some markets may become a little less favorable, others become more favorable.”
Harding said he’s seeing a lot of interest in Colombia—“the dynamics there have been more favorable for business expansion the last few years”—as well as Mexico. And he noted more enthusiasm among businesses about expanding into Africa, given factors like growth rates there and the continent’s developing middle class. “The Africa market is looking good.”
Guillen also cited Africa. “Half of the fastest-growing economies in the world happen to be in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.
Guillen noted that India is currently growing faster than China, and he said Mexico “is doing well despite all the problems with drug trafficking.”
He suggested, though, that companies trying to decide where to invest should consider the market segments they’re interested in targeting, rather than focusing solely on geography. For example, “we know global populations are getting older, so you have a new class of consumers: people above 50 or 60. That’s an expanding segment,” Guillen said.
Women who have jobs and money to spend are another expanding segment companies might want to target, he said, as are cities, as the world’s population migrates from the country into cities.
Effect of Government Policies on Emerging Markets
Milton Ezrati, a partner and senior economist at investment management company Lord Abbett, said that when companies are trying to decide where to do business, they should focus on government policies.
“These countries have tremendous development potential, but government policy often gets in the way,” he said. “Either it’s just poorly conceived or positively rapacious.”
Ezrati suggested three areas to assess in terms of a government’s approach. The first is whether policies are generally supportive of the economy. “It’s less of a concern if you’re just looking to outsource cheaply,” he said. “But if you want to invest in such a way that you become part of the economy, you want policies that support economic growth.”
He cited China, India, and Indonesia as countries where government policies are a plus, but said Latin America, “aside from Brazil, is getting a little iffy, although the Mexicans are trying.”
The second aspect is the country’s regulatory policies and how much the government or local authorities are likely to interfere in the company’s workings, Ezrati said. The third is the level of corruption in the country.
We still see an enormous appetite for global expansion. Where some markets may become a little less favorable, others become more favorable.
—Larry Harding, Radius
Able to Deal with a Slowdown
When it comes to the criteria to look at when assessing emerging markets, Randolph echoed Ezrati’s focus on government policy. Randolph noted that some countries are better than others at dealing with the slowdown in growth.
“Many [emerging markets] have been taking the appropriate remedial policy measures,” he said, such as letting their exchange rates float and raising interest rates to support their currency and limit domestic demand.
“More fundamentally, some of these emerging markets have much better financial systems,” he said. “They’re better able to intermediate domestic savings and have a good array of their own commercial banks that can pick up the assets that were left by fleeing foreigners.”
Randolph cited Chile and Malaysia as two countries with financial systems that are well-developed enough to absorb assets that foreign investors leave behind.
In general, he said, South Asia seems to be doing well and benefiting from the fall in commodity prices.
“The star performer in Asia is probably the Philippines,” Randolph said, noting that IHS recently upgraded the country’s sovereign rating, reflecting better governance. “Measures of transparency, corruption, and economic freedom are all improving.” He also cited Malaysia’s diversification from a reliance on commodities to develop a sizable services industry.
Randolph also pointed to Eastern Europe, which he said has decoupled from Russia’s economy and is now linked to Western Europe. “Poland is a star performer, but the Baltic states have done a fine recovery; they’re some of the fastest-growing economies in Europe.”
Harding noted that the volatility in emerging-market currencies creates both a challenge and an opportunity.
As the U.S. dollar has strengthened against many other currencies, “that makes our dollar-denominated goods and services more expensive,” he said. “However, it makes the cost of opening up an overseas office and hiring overseas people and resources much less expensive. Now can be a great time to think about expanding into a market so you’re ready when the economy does pick up.”