Which Big Emerging-Market Countries Should You Invest in?

by | Oct 5, 2015

When it comes to investing in emerging markets, there are the haves and the have-nots, and right now it’s the have-nots that present the most compelling opportunities right now.

The “haves” in emerging markets are the nations such as Brazil and Russia that have a surfeit of commodities. They’re in a world of hurt as commodity prices have plunged. In contrast, India and China import a significant amount of commodities and are enjoying a comparatively better economic situation. Even though the Federal Reserve’s decision last month to leave U.S. interest rates unchanged left global uncertainty high, risk premiums elevated and emerging markets trading at a discount to developed ones, you should ponder investing in these “have-not” markets, as investors refocus on economic fundamentals. Let’s consider how to invest in the so-called BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Take a pass on Brazil. The country is in recession. Its market has cratered some 20% over the last 12 months. Its currency, the real, has dropped 40% over the past year. Because China’s appetite for commodity imports has decreased, Brazil’s export-fueled growth has stalled. The Brazilian government’s fiscal situation is a mess, and Standard & Poor’s considers the country below investment grade. Though inflation is moderate, the national budget remains bloated, and policymakers haven’t cut spending or raised taxes in a meaningful manner. The president has an anemic 8% approval rating, and there are street protests calling for her impeachment.

With Russia, you need to be very selective. Because Russia has an oil-driven economy, it has suffered from sustained low energy prices, so the entire market has remained depressed. What’s more, the uncertain geopolitical picture with Ukraine has given investors pause. But the Oppenheimer Developing Markets Fund (ODMAX), the largest emerging-markets fund in the U.S., is taking a bet on a diamond in the rough: Novatek OAO (NOVKY) , a gas provider that is building the country’s only liquefied natural gas export site. If the company is successful (and if it can wrestle free of U.S. sanctions on Russia), there is a massive opportunity to generate steady cash flows by exporting energy throughout the region.

With India, go for it. Because of depressed oil prices, India has been able to save billions in fuel subsidies. As a result, there is moderate inflation of about 4%, and the Reserve Bank of India surprised investors with a 50-basis-point cut in interest rates. Easing rates should lead to an economic pickup among domestic cyclicals, in particular, banks with a strong capital base such as HDFC Bank (HDB), which is one of India’s biggest lenders and also provides financial services in Hong Kong, Dubai and Bahrain. The stock is up 27% over the last 12 months. It does trade at a premium to its peers, but you get what you pay for: a top-performing company that should benefit from meaningful earnings growth among Indian corporations in the second half of the year.

With China, it’s wait and see. This was supposed to be the year of China, as its “Stock-Connect” initiative, rolled out in November 2014, enabled foreign investors to access mainland China shares. But the summer devaluation of the renimbi has caused global investors to be exceedingly cautious regarding China. And rightfully so. China is trying to rebalance its economy away from export-driven growth to one that is driven by domestic consumer spending and services. This is a process that will take years if not decades to achieve. The Lazard Emerging Markets Equity Portfolio (LZEMX), one of the largest emerging-markets funds to employ a fundamental strategy, is considerably underweight China, holding only 15% of its portfolio in these securities. That compares with 25% in the benchmark MSCI Emerging Markets Index. Recent price action has made Lazard incremental buyers of Chinese equities, but it’s still too early to jump into this market. Take a cautious approach with China and wait until more economic data are released.

[This article was also published in TheStreet]

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

Kabir Sehgal is the author of New York Times bestseller Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. He is also a Grammy-winning producer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.