The Case for and Against Investing in Emerging Markets Now
Economic growth is expected to be relatively strong. But these stocks also carry risks.
Economic growth is expected to be relatively strong. But these stocks also carry risks.
Emerging markets stocks have outpaced developed-market shares over the past 12 months, making them a tempting investment option. So is now a good time to take the plunge, or should investors stay away?
On the plus side, economic growth in emerging markets is expected to surpass growth in developed markets in the next few years. And emerging-markets stocks can be useful to U.S. investors for diversifying a portfolio, since they don’t move in lockstep with U.S. shares.
But emerging-markets shares come with higher volatility than developed-market stocks and an array of risks, including political risk, currency risk, liquidity risk—and economic risk, despite the rosy projections. And investors can get exposure to emerging markets more safely with a portfolio of U.S. stocks that includes companies doing business in those markets.
“Investing in emerging markets is a high-risk, high-reward proposition,” says Eswar Prasad, a trade-policy professor at Cornell University. “Many emerging markets have done well growth-wise, and their financial markets have had periods of success, but it tends not to last too long.”
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at the cases for and against investing in emerging markets now.
The biggest advantage of emerging markets today is their potential for stronger economic growth than advanced economies, investment pros say.
“About 90% of the world’s population under 30 lives in emerging markets,” says Michael Sheldon, chief investment officer at RDM Financial Group, Hightower, a wealth-management firm in Westport, Conn. “This may lead to stronger labor-market growth, increased productivity and stronger GDP and corporate profits over time.”
In contrast, developed countries have rapidly expanding senior populations and low birthrates, which makes it more difficult to find workers to fill new jobs, says Karim Ahamed, investment strategist at Cerity Partners, a wealth-management firm in Chicago. That can limit economic growth.
The International Monetary Fund forecasts average annual GDP growth of 5.5% for emerging markets in 2021-23, compared with 3.5% for advanced economies.
Emerging markets also represent diversification opportunities for U.S. investors. That’s partly because economic growth and financial-market performance in emerging markets are less correlated with the U.S. than advanced economies and financial markets are. In addition, emerging markets give U.S. investors currency diversification, which can be helpful when the dollar is weak.
While investors can gain exposure to emerging markets through stocks of U.S. companies that earn revenue from those markets, those stocks won’t give investors the full diversification benefit, Prof. Prasad says.
The strong economic and corporate performance that is boosting emerging-markets stocks also makes their bonds attractive, says Robert Koenigsberger, chief investment officer at Greenwich, Conn.-based Gramercy Funds Management, which specializes in emerging markets.
Inflation is less of a problem in most major emerging markets today than it has been at times in the past. Also, emerging-markets countries’ external deficits generally have narrowed, or totally reversed in some cases. “This should give emerging-market central banks more flexibility to absorb external shocks and deal with post-pandemic inflationary pressures, allowing them to tighten monetary policy without slowing growth momentum too much,” Mr. Koenigsberger says.
Emerging-markets stocks are more volatile than those in advanced economies. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index had a standard deviation of 18 over the past 10 years, compared with 14 for the MSCI World Index of developed markets, according to Morningstar. Standard deviation measures volatility, with a higher number representing more volatility.
The factors behind that higher volatility in emerging markets include political risk, economic risk, currency risk and liquidity risk.
And while emerging-markets economies generally have been on a sharp uptrend for years, some also have experienced serious downturns. Russia’s economy, for instance, shrank 2% in 2015, compared with 2.9% growth for the U.S. that year.
Emerging-markets currencies are a double-edged sword, providing diversification but also volatility. “When you try repatriating your investment, everything may be going wrong at the same time,” with the emerging market’s economy, financial markets and currency dropping together, Prof. Prasad says.
A declining emerging-market currency makes an investment less valuable when converted into dollars. And emerging-markets currencies aren’t only vulnerable to trouble in their own country—they also tend to decline against the dollar when the U.S. currency is gaining against other developed-market currencies like the euro or yen, regardless of what’s happening in emerging markets.
Meanwhile, market liquidity isn’t as deep in emerging markets as in advanced ones. “There’s always a risk with emerging markets: It’s easy to bring money in, but not always to take it out,” Prof. Prasad says.
On the bond side, corporate debt outstanding has soared 400% in emerging markets since 2010, Mr. Koenigsberger says. So, plenty of securities are available. But liquidity isn’t just about supply. “Due to fewer banks and smaller market-making operations at those banks, there is insufficient liquidity when investors look to exit the market” in many cases, he says.
One negative factor for emerging markets in the near term is that countries such as India and Brazil are having trouble dealing with Covid-19. That will likely weigh on emerging-markets stocks this year, Mr. Ahamed says.
For those who want to jump into emerging markets, what’s the best way? Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds will suit most investors better than individual stocks and bonds, because researching and trading individual securities in these markets is often difficult.
When it comes to the question of actively managed funds versus passive index funds, “you can make an argument for active management to provide some downside protection,” Mr. Ahamed says. “But an ETF gives you very broad-based exposure in a way that’s generally cost effective, with lower fees.” Most ETFs passively track a market index.
For bond funds, actively managed is the way to go, Mr. Koenigsberger says. The growth of emerging-markets debt amid continuing economic challenges in many countries puts a premium on active management to sort out the winners, he says. Emerging-markets bond indexes tracked by passive funds are usually weighted by market capitalization, so the most heavily indebted issuers have higher weightings. “Emerging-market debt isn’t an asset class that is suitable for index funds,” Mr. Koenigsberger says.
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: July 4, 2021
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Crypto’s lack of connections with traditional finance means its problems haven’t spilled over to the economy
This year’s crypto collapse has all the hallmarks of a classic banking crisis: runs, fire sales, contagion.
What it doesn’t have are banks.
Check out the bankruptcy filings of crypto platforms Voyager Digital Holdings Inc., Celsius Network LLC and FTX Trading Ltd. and hedge fund Three Arrows Capital, and you won’t find any banks listed among their largest creditors.
While bankruptcy filings aren’t entirely clear, they describe many of the largest creditors as customers or other crypto-related companies. Crypto companies, in other words, operate in a closed loop, deeply interconnected within that loop but with few apparent connections of significance to traditional finance. This explains how an asset class once worth roughly $3 trillion could lose 72% of its value, and prominent intermediaries could go bust, with no discernible spillovers to the financial system.
“Crypto space…is largely circular,” Yale University economist Gary Gorton and University of Michigan law professor Jeffery Zhang write in a forthcoming paper. “Once crypto banks obtain deposits from investors, these firms borrow, lend, and trade with themselves. They do not interact with firms connected to the real economy.”
A few years from now, things might have been different, given the intensifying pressure on regulators and bankers to embrace crypto. The crypto meltdown may have prevented that—and a much wider crisis.
Crypto has long been marketed as an unregulated, anonymous, frictionless, more accessible alternative to traditional banks and currencies. Yet its mushrooming ecosystem looks a lot like the banking system, accepting deposits and making loans. Messrs. Gorton and Zhang write, “Crypto lending platforms recreated banking all over again… if an entity engages in borrowing and lending, it is economically equivalent to a bank even if it’s not labeled as one.”
And just like the banking system, crypto is leveraged and interconnected, and thus vulnerable to debilitating runs and contagion. This year’s crisis began in May when TerraUSD, a purported stablecoin—i.e., a cryptocurrency that aimed to sustain a constant value against the dollar—collapsed as investors lost faith in its backing asset, a token called Luna. Rumours that Celsius had lost money on Terra and Luna led to a run on its deposits and in July Celsius filed for bankruptcy protection.
Three Arrows, a crypto hedge fund that had invested in Luna, had to liquidate. Losses on a loan to Three Arrows and contagion from Celsius forced Voyager into bankruptcy protection.
Meanwhile FTX’s trading affiliate Alameda Research and Voyager had lent to each other, and Alameda and Celsius also had exposure to each other. But it was the linkages between FTX and Alameda that were the two companies’ undoing. Like many platforms, FTX issued its own cryptocurrency, FTT. After this was revealed to be Alameda’s main asset, Binance, another major platform, said it would dump its own FTT holdings, setting off the run that triggered FTX’s collapse.
Genesis Global Capital, another crypto lender, had exposure to both Three Arrows and Alameda. It has suspended withdrawals and sought outside cash in the wake of FTX’s demise. BlockFi, another crypto lender with exposure to FTX and Alameda, is preparing a bankruptcy filing, the Journal has reported.
The density of connections between these players is nicely illustrated with a sprawling diagram in an October report by the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which brings together federal financial regulators.
To historians, this litany of contagion and collapse is reminiscent of the free banking era from 1837 to 1863 when banks issued their own bank notes, fraud proliferated, and runs, suspensions of withdrawals, and panics occurred regularly. Yet while those crises routinely walloped business activity, crypto’s has largely passed the economy by.
Some investors, from unsophisticated individuals to big venture-capital and pension funds, have sustained losses, some life-changing. But these are qualitatively different from the sorts of losses that threaten the solvency of major lending institutions and the broader financial system’s stability.
To be sure, some loan or investment losses by banks can’t be ruled out. Banks also supply crypto companies with custodial and payment services and hold their cash, such as to back stablecoins. Some small banks that cater to crypto companies have been buffeted by large outflows of deposits.
Traditional finance had little incentive to build connections to crypto because, unlike government bonds or mortgages or commercial loans or even derivatives, crypto played no role in the real economy. It’s largely been shunned as a means of payment except where untraceability is paramount, such as money laundering and ransomware. Much-hyped crypto innovations such as stablecoins and DeFi, a sort of automated exchange, mostly facilitate speculation in crypto rather than useful economic activity.
Crypto’s grubby reputation repelled mainstream financiers like Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, and made regulators deeply skittish about bank involvement. In time this was bound to change, not because crypto was becoming useful but because it was generating so much profit for speculators and their supporting ecosystem.
Several banks have made private-equity investments in crypto companies and many including J.P. Morgan are investing in blockchain, the distributed ledger technology underlying cryptocurrencies. A flood of crypto lobbying money was prodding Congress to create a regulatory framework under which crypto, having failed as an alternative to the dollar, could become a riskier, less regulated alternative to equities.
Now, stained by bankruptcy and scandal, cryptocurrency will have to wait longer—perhaps forever—to be fully embraced by traditional banking. An end to banking crises required the replacement of private currencies with a single national dollar, the creation of the Federal Reserve as lender of last resort, deposit insurance and comprehensive regulation.
It isn’t clear, though, that the same recipe should be applied to crypto: Effective regulation would eliminate much of the efficiency and anonymity that explain its appeal. And while the U.S. economy clearly needed a stable banking system and currency, it will do just fine without crypto.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’