In developing-market investing, the cool kids are “emerging” and the wannabes are “frontier.”
The indexers at MSCI decide who’s cool and who’s not after analyzing a market’s liquidity and openness to foreign investment, among other factors. Where a country is placed can make or break local markets—and the exchange-traded funds that track them. Last year, Pakistan was a big winner, with a 33% gain after MSCI said the country would graduate from frontier to emerging in 2017. Nigeria, which MSCI said could fall out of frontier market status completely in 2017, slipped 39%, with currency devaluation crushing returns.
Pakistan’s sharp gains helped the MSCI Frontier index produce a barely positive total return of 3% in 2016, much less than the return of the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (ticker: EEM), which was up 11%.
Because of frontier markets’ volatility and disparate membership, index funds usually aren’t the best way to play them. While there are 23 frontier countries, the iShares MSCI Frontier 100 ETF (FM) is dominated by Kuwait, (21% of holdings), followed by Argentina (16%), Pakistan (12%), and Vietnam (8%). Africa is underrepresented. Making index investing less appealing is the wide-ranging performance of individual stocks.
EXPERIENCED STOCKPICKERS are the best alternative for fund investors seeking undiscovered values and portfolio diversification in these markets. We spoke with some active frontier market investors to get their ideas for the new year. With its coming ascension to emerging market status, Pakistan remains a favorite, because China is investing in its transportation infrastructure. Another choice: Bangladesh, where millions of rural poor are expected to inch toward the middle class. Vietnam remains attractive but looks more vulnerable than others, given recent volatility and geopolitics.
The Chicago-based managers of the Driehaus Frontier Emerging Markets fund (DRFRX), which rose 9% in 2016, attribute their outperformance to avoiding energy names and some traditional banks that had lending problems. They took some profits in Vietnam and favor mobile-banking plays elsewhere. Two 2017 picks: telecom Safaricom (SCOM.Kenya) and BRAC Bank (BRAC.Bangladesh). Each has a burgeoning mobile financial platform that could produce 25% compounded annual earnings growth. And while each stock has jumped, growth rates give the stocks more room to run, says Chad Cleaver, a co-manager of the Driehaus fund.
Asha Mehta, who focuses on emerging and frontier markets at Acadian Asset Management in Boston, is a fan of infrastructure plays in Pakistan and Vietnam. One is Hoa Phat Group (HPG.Vietnam), among the country’s largest steel producers, with a market value of $1.6 billion. Despite improving sales and increased market share, its trailing price/earnings ratio is low at roughly seven times. She expects Vietnam, as well as Argentina and Romania, to eventually make their way to emerging markets, which, as investors in Pakistan discovered, can provide a nice boost for portfolios. Mehta believes Argentina could make the jump as soon as May.
Of course, risks abound. But even a U.S. trade war with China could end up bolstering frontier markets that benefit from Chinese investment.