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Dead in the water: is it all over for emerging market investing?

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As Goldman Sachs closes its BRIC fund, we ask whether investing in generalist funds that group together emerging market economies still has merit.

In 2001, the former chief economist of Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neill, coined the acronym BRICs – namely Brazil, Russia, India and China – when predicting the engines of future growth.

What followed was not only a spate of fund launches investing in the four countries, including one from Goldman Sachs itself, but also a new fashion to collectively group and package up emerging markets into clever acronyms for the sake of getting new funds to market.

For example, in additions to the BRICs, we have had the CIVETS (Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa, while South Africa also later became the big S, as the fifth investable country in the BRICSs). A personal favourite was also Chindia, when investors were given the option of a fund that only invested in China and India.

Given the growth in global emerging markets over the past 15 years it is little wonder that these concepts caught on. However as these economies have stalled in recent years investors have gone cold on the region as a whole.

A couple of weeks ago Goldman Sachs announced it had merged its BRIC fund into its wider emerging markets offering as assets have plummeted over the past five years. So the question is: are investors better off in more generalist emerging market funds, or would they be better suited allocating to single country funds, such as India, where the prospects look more rosy?

Economic forecaster Harry Dent Jnr, the founder of Dent Research and author of The Demographic Cliff, says given how dependent Russia, China and Brazil are on commodities and exports, the case of investing in them collectively has fallen apart. As such, alongside investing selectively in South East Asia, he says the only single country he would invest in over the course of the 40 years is India, given the strength of its demographics.

Lee Robertson, chief executive of wealth management firm Investment Quorum, says that he applauds Goldman Sachs move to merge the BRICs fund and argues the time for grouping those countries together collectively has passed.

“BRICs were ok for their time, when their economies were ‘emerging’ and were more aligned,” he says.

“However we would suggest that with India and China now treading their own paths, investors take more care looking at country specifics and do their research on where they want to be invested.

“It is time to stop lumping different countries together for the sake of acronyms and time to look at more country specific funds.”

Investment Quorum holds two India only funds in their model portfolios; Fidelity India and Jupiter India. In terms of other countries which stand out at present he says that he likes some of the frontier Asian markets such as Vietnam and Thailand.

“Some of these countries have real growth stories taking place and are not saddled with the same problems as Brazil, Russia and China.”

That said, Robertson has not given up on China and remains happy investing in it on a medium-term view. From a funds perspective, given its regional focus and the fact it invests in growth orientated countries, he likes the Fidelity Emerging Markets fund. Managed by Nick Price, India, South Africa and China were its largest country bets as at 30 September, each representing 17% of the fund’s assets.

Robertson also recommends the Somerset Emerging Markets Dividend Growth fund, managed by Edward Lam. “The fund is smaller and more nimble than many of its peers and is differentiated by its seeking of dividend yields,” he says.

James Calder, head of research at City Asset Management (CAM), says that his preference when investing in global emerging markets is to pick a generalist fund in which the individual fund manager picks the best companies from each country.

“The benchmark is heavily skewed to China and a lot of the active funds do not reflect this,” he says.

“As such our preference would be take a sizeable 5-6% position in a well diversified fund where the skilled making is asset allocating across both countries and sectors.”

As it happens Calder says CAM is currently zero weighted in GEMs, although it is something which is constantly under review. If he were to reinvest however, he says it would not be in funds that he invested in during the last cycle.

“We want new managers for a new cycle,” he says.

“In the next few months we will be seeing half a dozen or so new fund managers, with the only exception benighted probably use again of Fidelity’s FAST Global Emerging Markets fund. It is a 130/30 fund, meaning it has the ability to short positions, which is something we like.”