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Emerging Market Equities, Why Now?

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Global economies have faced a number of challenges in recent months, leading to depressed stock market returns. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war continues to have ripple effects on the global economy. And although most countries have gone back to business as usual following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus is probably not going to fully disappear.

In addition, China’s “Zero-COVID” policy has been weighing on economic activity there. Other well-known market challenges include rising inflation and interest rates, as well as the surging US dollar.

Despite these headwinds, emerging economies continue to prove their resilience. We believe it is now a compelling time to consider emerging markets equities, even as many investors are less focused on the asset class.

Conventional And Consistent Policies

Policies in emerging markets have generally been more conventional and consistent than those of developed markets, which we believe will ultimately lead to more robust economies relative to their own history and relative to developed markets. In contrast to developed markets in the post-global financial crisis period, emerging economies did not experiment with negative interest rates.

They have generally had upward-sloping, traditional yield curves over the past decade. During the recent pandemic, policymakers in emerging markets generally did not pursue very aggressive fiscal support plans, which means they did not blow up their sovereign balance sheets. Contrast this with developed markets like the United Kingdom, for example, which pursued aggressive fiscal expansions.

As inflation began to accelerate post-pandemic, emerging economies were also preemptive in tightening interest rates. Thus, while the United Kingdom, the eurozone and the United States are still trying to catch up with rising inflation, many emerging economies have largely completed their tightening cycles. 

Brazil, for example, started tightening in March 2021, and has made 12 consecutive rate hikes. Inflation has been decelerating there in recent months, leading the central bank to pause its hiking cycle in September. The US Federal Reserve, meanwhile, did not start raising rates until March of 2022.

In addition, emerging economies are typically less leveraged at the sovereign, corporate and household levels. For example, in Mexico, the household debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is only 16%, compared with the United Kingdom’s ratio of around 90%. 1

At the stock level, emerging markets offer investors opportunities in high-quality and high-growth companies. They are home to some of the most innovative, technology-oriented companies in the world—companies that are building the digital architecture around us. These include hardware and software suppliers as well as semiconductor manufacturers.

Some are even responsible for the transition to decarbonization. Many emerging market companies are global leaders in the production of electric vehicles and electric batteries, and in renewable energy such as in solar manufacturing.

Attractive Valuations

Emerging market equity valuations are trading at near historic discounts versus the developed world. In our analysis, the relative profitability between these two asset classes does not warrant the current 45% discount on a price-to-book basis. 2

Also, relative to its own 15- to 20-year history, emerging markets as an asset class is one of the few that looks cheap to us. The MSCI Emerging Markets (EM) Index, a benchmark representing the asset class, is now trading at close to 10 times forward earnings, compared to around 18 times for the US S&P 500 Index (S&P 500). 3

Increased Dividends And Buybacks

Emerging market companies have recently been increasing their dividends. They have been using their cash flows to distribute dividends to shareholders rather than deploying capital given uncertain growth outlooks. Company managements have also been seeing value in their equities, resulting in increased buyback activity.

In our opinion, these increases are temporary. In this volatile environment, these dividends and buybacks are appreciated, but we would prefer companies invest in their own businesses for secular growth opportunities.

While we believe the persistence of high dividend levels is unlikely to remain at the current 4% level, there has been a sea change in how emerging market companies think about capital optimization and balance sheet management.  4    

Over the past 20 years, approximately 2.5% of annualized total returns of 9% have come from dividends. 5 Thus, there has been dividend support to the asset class, which many investors may not realize.

Increasing Optimism  

Over the long term, we are increasingly optimistic about emerging market economies. Despite the current environment of slowing growth, rising inflation and geopolitical issues globally, we have confidence in both the emerging markets asset class and our strategies.

We continue to seek high-quality business with solid balance sheets, competitive advantages and attractive valuations.

Sources

1. Sources: CEIC, “Mexico Household Debt: % of GDP,” June 2022. CEIC, “United Kingdom Household Debt: % of GDP,” June 2022.

2. Source: Factset. Price-to-book ratio is a financial ratio used to compare a company’s current market value to its book value.

3. Sources: MSCI, Nasdaq. The MSCI EM Index is a free float-adjusted, market capitalization-weighted index designed to measure the equity market performance of global emerging markets. The S&P 500 is a market capitalization-weighted index of 500 stocks designed to measure total U.S. equity market performance. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot directly invest in them. They do not include fees, expenses or sales charges. Past performance is not an indicator of future results. See www.franklintempletondatasources.com for additional data provider information.

4. Source: Factset.

5. Source: Factset, FTEME.

About the Author

Andrew Ness, Portfolio Manager, Franklin Templeton Emerging Markets Equity  

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