The easy way to invest in emerging markets

Investing in developing countries isn’t as straightforward as fund managers like to tell us, says Jonathan Compton. Here's how to do it the easy way, using companies mostly based in the UK.

There has always been something intellectually topsy-turvy about investing in emerging markets. The theory is straightforward: if you invest in developing countries with young and rapidly growing populations, cheap labour, improving infrastructure and a reasonably clean government, then stockmarket returns should be greater than those from more mature, slower-growing economies. This was the yarn I both spun and believed during three decades of involvement in emerging markets in fund management, broking and corporate finance. 

Quite often, however, you were not buying into the local growth story, but into companies selling to multinationals in advanced countries, taking advantage of cheap local labour, a lack of employment rules and low taxes. A good example is the iPhone. Less than 10% of the components are actually designed and made in America. Most of the manufacturing occurs offshore, mainly in Asia. The same applies to semiconductor components, vital for a broad range of appliances from cars to washing machines. The value accrues less to the emerging economy and more to the multinational. Hence Apple’s gross profit margin has been between 30% and 40% for the last 15 years, while the margins for the local suppliers of components are a fraction of Apple’s. Companies will always try to find the lowest-cost suppliers to remain competitive. It’s been going on ever since East Anglia enjoyed an industrial revolution 3,500 years ago, exporting flints for spear and axe-manufacturing in Europe. 

Another problem for developing economies was that foreign companies would often crowd out local businesses due to their ability to raise capital and swallow start-up costs. That is why Africa has only a rudimentary car-manufacturing sector producing a mere handful of designs, while key components such as the engine are imported or made under licence. Until recently Asia (ex-Japan) had failed to create significant players in services such as advertising or to develop global drinks brands. In broadcasting and publishing, too, there have been few winners.

Where the value goes

The result has been that until recently, most emerging-market indices were dominated by local banks, property companies and utilities, where government tended to impose controls against foreign competition. Because local banking regulation and oversight were typically weak and capital flows erratic, emerging markets became as well known for their booms and busts as for their growth stories. 

Even in sectors where emerging markets have the edge, such as commodities or clothing manufacture (the starting point for the success stories of Singapore and Hong Kong), often the value-added is lost to the overseas operator or buyer. Swedish-based Hennes & Mauritz, for instance – better known as H&M – is a global success in selling clothes (and if you had invested 30 years ago you would have made 200 times your original investment). It owns no factories, but designs and then sources clothes from over 800 local production sites worldwide, many in developing countries. The gross profit margin in the four years to 2020 was a chunky 50%. The suppliers will have been negotiated down as much as possible; moreover, with so many sources H&M can change suppliers in the blink of an eye. Given Sweden has only 11 million people, it’s a remarkable story of a company turning its comparative disadvantage into success. But its shareholders have been the winners, not emerging-markets investors. 

In natural resources too, a disproportionate number of the winners have been foreign companies rather than local ones. Indonesia groans with copper and gold, but its largest mine is owned and operated by Freeport-McMoRan, based in Arizona. The largest global copper deposits are in Chile. Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton owns Chile’s – and the world’s – biggest copper mine, the Escondida project, in a joint venture with UK-based Rio Tinto and a Japanese consortium. 

An inferior index

The leading benchmark for developing economies is the MSCI Emerging Markets index, which reflects the performance of large and mid-cap companies in 27 nations. These markets are defined as “economies or countries where some sectors are rapidly expanding and engaging aggressively with global markets”. Sounds pretty woolly? It is. The index is dominated by three countries: China (comprising almost 40%), then Taiwan and South Korea (27% combined). Some countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, are absent because they have achieved developed-market status, and the index does not cover “frontier markets” (the poorest economies), which have their own index. China as an emerging market is an anomaly as it is the world’s second-largest economy. Its dominance of the benchmark has resulted in many funds using indices with a lower China weighting, but as a result Taiwan and South Korea become even larger. Either way the index still makes little sense given that Taiwan has income-per-head substantially larger than the UK and South Korea about the same as the EU average. 

The definition of emerging markets, then, is now out-of-date and the term has become a pretext for marketing “exciting” products and earning high fees. Emerging-market funds tend to charge 50% more than others. As an investment category it’s not going away anytime soon, but the examples of companies making hay in these countries points to an often more successful and cheaper way to invest. 

Where investors should look 

Look at where a company makes its money, not where it is listed. Many firms listed in emerging markets make their profits selling overseas, so they are tied into the slow growth in mature economies – the opposite of what investors think they are buying. For the prime reason to invest in developing countries is to capture their high domestic economic growth. Therefore it is far more rational to invest in companies (wherever they are domiciled) that derive much of their sales and profits from emerging markets. 

There are many in the UK and other major markets, which have the added benefit of better corporate governance and less corruption. Moreover, returns are often better. Some of the best emerging-market companies are actually “at home”. There are some interesting growth stories at the smaller end of the UK market...

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