Is Now the Time to Invest in Emerging Markets?
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Is Now the Time to Invest in Emerging Markets?

Emerging-markets stock ETFs offer exposure to higher-growth markets, but they also can be volatile. Here is a look at the pros and cons of these investments.

By LORI IOANNOU
Tue, Sep 5, 2023 8:03amGrey Clock 5 min

For some investors seeking to diversify their portfolios, emerging markets are looking increasingly attractive.

There are 169 emerging-markets stock ETFs available to fund investors, with total assets of about $296 billion, according to fund researcher Morningstar Direct.

Some analysts and financial advisers say there is a lot to like about this sector right now. What is the argument for putting money into these exchange-traded funds? And what’s the argument for getting out, or not starting at all? Here’s a look at the pros and cons.

The Pros

One factor driving interest in emerging-markets ETFs is that emerging economies are growing faster than advanced economies, and that isn’t forecast to change soon. The International Monetary Fund forecasts real GDP growth of only 1.4% in advanced economies in 2024 due to inflation, monetary policy and other factors. In contrast, the IMF projects real GDP growth of 4.1% for emerging and developing economies, helped by countries such as India, which is expected to grow at a rate of 6.3%.

“The biggest reason to invest in emerging-markets ETFs today is to gain exposure to high-growth markets with burgeoning middle-class consumers such as China, India, Mexico, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam,” says Aniket Ullal, senior vice president and head of ETF data and analytics at CFRA Research. He says emerging markets are home to more than 4.3 billion people, and they account for about half of global GDP.

Crowds in the Ximen shopping district in Taipei, Taiwan., in June. Taiwan is one of the emerging economies that some ETFs focus on. PHOTO: AN RONG XU FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Another attraction is that valuations on emerging-markets stocks are low. While the price-to-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 was 22.4 based on trailing 12-month reported earnings as of July 31, the P/E ratio of the MSCI Emerging Markets—which includes the stock of most liquid large- and midcap companies in 25 emerging-market countries—was 14.13.

“This is a smart contrarian play for investors who want to diversify their portfolios geographically,” says Gabriel Shahin, president of Falcon Wealth Planning, an investment adviser in Los Angeles. “There is a fire sale going on in emerging-market stocks, and this is one of the smartest plays in equity investing right now.”

Some see these investments as a hedge, considering this year’s U.S. stock rally—dominated by a small number of large-cap technology companies—could end at any time.

Emerging-markets ETFs come in many varieties, so investors can choose those that align with their macroeconomic outlook and financial goals.

While some of these funds invest in a broad basket of emerging-market countries that span the globe such as the $72.1 billion iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (IEMG), others invest in geographic regions such as Asia or Latin America or are country-specific.

The $64.2 million Franklin FTSE Latin America ETF (FLLA), for example, invests in large-cap and midcap companies in Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. It has returned more than 19% year-to-date through Aug. 29 and 15.6% over the past year. The $175.8 million Franklin FTSE Taiwan ETF (FLTW) invests in midcap and large-cap Taiwanese companies. It has a year-to-date return of 14.7% and a one-year-return of 8.2% as of Aug. 29.

For investors concerned about the economic slowdown in China, there are emerging-markets ETFs that exclude Chinese equities such as the $5.16 billion iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ex-China (EMXC). Its top holdings are Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, Samsung Electronics and Reliance Industries.

Some emerging-markets ETFs target small- or large-cap stocks. One is the $34.2 million VanEck Brazil Small-Cap ETF (BRF), which is up about 32% year-to-date and 11.4% over one year as of Aug. 29. Others focus on industry sectors such as technology and e-commerce.

While most emerging-markets equity ETFs track indexes, an increasing number of newer funds are actively managed. Of the 11 emerging-markets ETFs that have launched this year, eight are actively managed, including Global X Brazil Active ETF (BRAZ), a $2.61 million fund that invests in Brazilian companies such as Petrobras, a multinational petroleum company, and Vale, the world’s largest iron-ore producer.

There are even emerging-markets ETFs that pay dividends, such as the $243.5 million SPDR S&P Emerging Market Dividend ETF (EDIV), which is up 28.2% year-to-date through Aug. 29 and has a dividend yield of 3.78%.

According to Morningstar Direct, the top-performing emerging market ETFs this year through Aug. 29 are VanEck Brazil Small-Cap, SPDR S&P Emerging Market Dividend and iShares MSCI Brazil Small-Cap (EWZS), which is up 24.1% so far this year and 5.7% over one year.

The Cons

Some advisers, however, say investors looking at emerging-markets equity funds should proceed with caution.

“Emerging-markets equity ETFs are more volatile than international ETFs that focus on stocks in advanced economies,” says Lan Anh Tran, a research analyst at Morningstar Direct. Over the past 10 years ended July 31, 2023, the standard deviation of the MSCI Emerging Market Index was 16.2% higher than the MSCI World Index—a proxy for global developed-market stocks, she notes. Standard deviation measures volatility, with a higher number representing more volatility.

That’s because any sudden geopolitical event (such as the war in Ukraine) or any economic shock (like soaring inflation or a global supply-chain disruption) can have a jarring effect on emerging-market economies that are dependent on commodity exports, tourism and the health of advanced economies, investment strategists say.

There also is the risk of government influence and regulation on emerging-markets stocks, says Tran. A government, for example, can decide to nationalize an industry at any time, or exercise control over an industry sector.

Currency movements are another risk factor to consider, says CFRA’s Ullal. “If the dollar strengthens against local currencies, your fund returns will erode,” he says.

“It’s important that investors understand this is a high-risk, high-reward investment before they dive into them,” says Andrew J. Feldman, the founder of A.J. Feldman Financial in Chicago. “These funds can be highly volatile due to a host of systemic risks in emerging-market countries, including economic risk, geopolitical risk, currency risk and liquidity risk.”

These challenges make some investors skittish about investing in emerging-markets ETFs, says Kevin Shuller, founder and chief investment officer of Cedar Peak Wealth Advisors in Denver. “They believe that companies domiciled in the U.S. do a lot of business in emerging markets, so if you own the S&P 500 or MSCI EAFE index you have all the exposure you need.”

“It’s a good counterargument,” he says, “but [it] doesn’t take into account that the party in the U.S. stock market may not go on forever.”

Many investment advisers instead suggest individual investors take a step-by-step approach when choosing an emerging-markets ETF and allocate 5% to 10% of their equity portfolio in such vehicles.

“Country selection matters most so check the fund’s geographic exposure,” says Perth Tolle, founder of Life + Liberty Indexes and the $625.4 million Freedom 100 Emerging Markets ETF (FRDM), which invests in about 100 companies in 10 countries that aren’t autocracies but freer markets such as Chile, Poland, South Korea and Taiwan.

Also look at the methodologies and metrics the ETF uses when choosing stocks for its index or portfolio, as well as the fund fees. The average expense ratio for this ETF group is 0.51%, according to Morningstar Direct.

“A good way to assess a fund’s value is to look at its weighted average price to cash flow,” a measure of the price of a company’s stock relative to how much cash flow it generates, says Kevin Grogan, chief investment officer at Buckingham Wealth Partners in St. Louis. It gives a pulse reading on how cheap or expensive the emerging-markets stocks are in the fund.



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How the Middle East Became the Latest ‘Gold Rush’ in Marketing

The Middle East is set to be the fastest-growing marketing region in the world, driven by momentum in countries such as Saudi Arabia

By MEGAN GRAHAM
Tue, Jun 18, 2024 5 min

Saudi Arabia’s fledgling advertising industry and continued growth in the sector in the United Arab Emirates are helping to make the marketing business in the Middle East the fastest-growing in the world.

Ad spending in the Middle East is projected to increase 8.1% to $6.6 billion this year, up from 3.5% last year, according to advertising research firm WARC.

That expansion is building from a much smaller base than in many other ad markets. The Netherlands alone will generate $6 billion in ad spending in 2024, up about 2.3%, WARC said. But it is also enough to outpace every other region in 2024, the firm said.

“It reminds me almost of the gold rush,” said Reda Raad , chief executive of TBWA\Raad Group, an ad agency based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, that is part of the U.S.-based ad holding company Omnicom Group . “I don’t think we’re going to see this type of growth again in our lifetime.” TBWA\Raad has won eight new clients over the past year, with an increase in head count of 17% to accommodate the new work, Raad said.

Some international brands have long maintained a presence in the region. PepsiCo has considered the area a strategic market for decades, said Karim Elfiqi , senior vice president and chief marketing officer at PepsiCo Africa, Middle East and South Asia. Sponsorship deals with local stars such as Mohamed Salah , a soccer player from Egypt, “are a testimony of how over time, we have been part of the cultural fabric of the region,” Elfiqi said.

Other major brands have formed a more recent focus on the Middle East. The Lego Group opened a Middle East and Africa headquarters in Dubai in 2019, citing the size of the region’s young population. That office has developed work such as a Ramadan-themed campaign that ran in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, among other locations.

‘Massive growth’

The Middle East’s ad market has lagged behind regions such as North America and Europe partly because of stricter cultural norms and regulations that affected business, as did a more limited media landscape and economic instability, according to Raad.

But marketing growth in the region is now being driven in part by newfound marketing interest in Saudi Arabia, where ad spending this year is expected to reach $2.1 billion, nearly double its level in 2019, according to WARC. Growth is also coming from the U.A.E., whose ad market is expected to reach $1.7 billion in 2024. Smaller contributors include Qatar and Kuwait.

The landscape has changed now because of economic diversification, increased connectivity and a move into the digital world, leading international brands to enter and invest in campaigns tailored to the region, Raad said.

Four years ago, Saudi Arabia made up a small proportion of business at Lightblue, a creative experience and tech agency based in Dubai. These days, 40% of its business comes from the country, says co-founder David Balfour , who opened an office in Riyadh last month as a result.

“The conversation used to be, ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai.’ Now, it’s ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai—and in Saudi.’” Balfour said. “We’re seeing massive growth in that region.”

There have been speed bumps. As government spending reaches huge levels , Saudi Arabia experienced a rare economic contraction in 2023.

But the country’s efforts to expand its economic pursuits beyond oil have led to the creation of new brands, which are seeking the help of marketing agencies to get the word out.

Marketers in the region are seeking help to stay on-trend in areas such as generative artificial intelligence and social media, said Greg Paull , principal of R3, a consulting firm that helps match advertisers with agencies.

“U.A.E. has been a magnet for the region for 20 years as more investment has come in—but with the new leadership in Saudi since 2017 [when Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince ], this market has gone through remarkable growth,” Paull said.

Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for its human-rights record under the crown prince, the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom, especially over the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the more recent jailing of women’s rights activists.

Mohammed has outlasted the international isolation that followed Khashoggi’s killing, however, and continues to pursue an economic diversification plan dubbed Vision 2030. The country last year unveiled plans for a new international airline called Riyadh Air, is investing billions of dollars to build its tourism and videogame industries, and in March hosted a golf tournament in Jeddah under the auspices of LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that has both challenged the PGA Tour and struck a deal to unify with it.

Changing tides

Vision 2030 also calls women’s empowerment a top social priority and seeks to increase the country’s employment rate of women.

Nada Hakeem , CEO and co-founder of Saudi creative agency Wetheloft, said the perceptions of hardships for women in the marketing and advertising industry are outdated and inaccurate.

“As a Saudi woman who founded my company in 2012, I’ve always felt supported by the creative community and the industry as a whole,” Hakeem said. “While every society may have its challenges, I can confidently say that these challenges have not hindered our growth.”

A progression of new laws, policies and incentives are making the industry in Saudi Arabia more inclusive and supportive for women, she added.

In certain parts of the Middle East, “absolutely, it’s still challenging, but they are making the right strides, and they have the right quotas and ambitions in place,” said Rebecca Bezzina , CEO for the EMEA region at R/GA, an agency owned by Interpublic Group of Cos.

“They’ve got wealth, they’ve got world-class ambition, world-class budget. They’re not shy of doing things in the right way,” Bezzina added, speaking of the region overall. “But they still have a talent shortage, especially from a creative and design and product point of view. So often what we’ve found our success has been that they’ve come to us and said, ‘Oh, we want a world-class agency to help us launch this new venture or do this new brand.’”

R/GA said it sees 69% more requests for agency work from marketers in the region today than it did five years ago. It recently handled a brand redesign for Banque Saudi Fransi, which wanted to reaffirm its Saudi roots with a modern identity, and created Weyay, the brand for a new digital bank from the National Bank of Kuwait.

The agency hasn’t notably increased its regional workforce, but it has made changes to facilitate working across Europe and the Middle East.

Other Western players are making moves to capture a piece of the growth. Advertising giant WPP has long worked in Saudi Arabia through units such as Ogilvy and GroupM, but in 2021 established a joint venture with a local company to create ICG Saudi Arabia, a communications and media company based in Saudi Arabia. Ad holding company Stagwell opened new offices for its media agency Assembly in Riyadh in 2021 and in Cairo in 2022.

Regional hospitality

Some executives said certain facets of business dealings in the Middle East are different than in other parts of the world.

Bertrand Morin, a group account director for R/GA who is based in London and works often with Middle Eastern clients, said he spends much more time speaking about personal lives and families with those clients than those in the U.K. or U.S. He has been invited to Middle Eastern clients’ homes to join their families for dinner, something that has never happened with clients elsewhere.

But others say it can feel surprisingly familiar.

Balfour, the Lightblue co-founder, said he was struck by the number of ad-agency workers recently having dinner at the Riyadh location of steakhouse chain Beefbar, and the scene’s similarity to far-off locations.

“The staff are from everywhere in the world. The service and the food is unbelievable. There’s a DJ playing,” Balfour said. “Apart from not having alcohol, you could be anywhere in the world.”

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