Secular trends driving opportunities in emerging markets accelerated because of the Covid-19 crisis

By Manraj Sekhon

With the spread of Covid-19 having slowed in recent months, the focus of policymakers and markets has started to shift from the immediate needs of the health crisis towards the economy. 

Across both developed and emerging markets we are seeing containment, albeit with uneven progress, and economies globally are starting to reopen.

There is no clear template that any country can follow in dealing with this crisis, but several factors have been shown to successfully drive containment. As we look to 2021 and beyond, decisive policymaking paired with effective execution have been crucial, alongside social cohesion and economic resilience.

A stronger case for emerging markets

The crisis has highlighted the strengths of emerging markets, whether in terms of their social, governance and health care systems, or the fiscal and corporate reforms they have undertaken over the last two decades. 

Robust balance sheets across emerging markets have proven to be a source of resilience, and we believe that will continue.

Stimulus in emerging markets has been more measured, in part due to lesser means in certain countries, while others have left room for further action. 

Policy support has been fairly limited in East Asian markets that have deftly handled the pandemic, such as South Korea and Taiwan, while China has ample ammunition for further spending, to be targeted across both old and new economy infrastructure.

The future brought forward

Secular trends driving opportunities in emerging markets have accelerated because of the crisis. In effect, the future has been brought forward. That boosts our optimism in economies and companies that benefit from this evolution of the asset class.

We have been focused on three new realities in emerging markets. One is their increased institutional resilience. Corporates across many emerging markets entered the crisis with stronger balance sheets compared to developed countries – net cash levels once considered inefficient have proven to be prudent. 

Countries such as Brazil, India, China and South Korea have benefited from institutional reforms in years past, entering this crisis with stronger foundations and greater fiscal flexibility relative to history and Western peers – which also bodes well for recovery.

Second, the nature of emerging markets economies has changed. We have seen a transformation in the last decade away from cyclical sectors and dependence on foreign demand, towards domestic consumption and technology. The contribution of trade to the Chinese economy has halved from its peak, ensuring that China is no longer beholden to a recovery in Western economies.

The third reality centres on innovation, and the notion of emerging markets “leapfrogging” the developed world in terms of infrastructure and business models. We have seen this unfold in areas such as mobile telecoms, broadband, e-commerce, and e-payments – and more recently in new areas such as education and healthcare amid lockdowns. 

Such business models are highly suited to the structures of emerging markets, and benefit from the availability of superior data coverage at substantially lower cost in countries including China and India.

New business models have also impacted Western popular culture. For example, TikTok, a video-streaming platform owned by China-based private company ByteDance, has helped galvanise discussion of social issues in the US and other parts of the world. 

US-China relations: Pragmatism will prevail

The nature of US-China relations has changed, at both the political and economic levels. Washington’s view of China as a rival superpower has brought about a different policy stance: the current administration is taking a sharper approach than before, which is likely to persist.

The US presidential election also has a huge effect on the country’s rhetoric: the US government has expressed its displeasure with China on various occasions in recent weeks, but limited policy action has followed. 

Clearly, the US wants to project a tough stance on China but it also needs to continue a highly mutually beneficial economic relationship; the interconnectedness of companies and consumers globally means that neither country can afford to cut the other off.

Rhetoric will likely remain heated as the election approaches but once passed, and as a US economic recovery becomes clearer, the tone should improve. 

Geopolitical risks are par for the course for emerging market investors. While we continually factor these considerations into our investment decisions, of far greater importance are company fundamentals and earnings sustainability, as well as the irrefutable combination of demographics and long-term growth potential. 

ESG more critical than ever

The tone of engagement in emerging markets has shifted: companies that formerly took a narrow, hard-nosed approach to returns are adopting more accommodative measures. In countries such as South Korea, South Africa and Brazil, companies are placing more emphasis on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. 

We have seen leading companies in South Korea publicly apologise for governance missteps and manage their balance sheets more effectively through returning capital to shareholders. ESG reporting has become mandatory in some countries, a trend we expect to continue elsewhere.

The ESG conversation is changing further amid the pandemic, with a greater focus on the social impact of policies. 

ESG has become more important, with companies considering it critical to sustainable business performance. In our view, this “delta” of improving ESG in emerging markets is a further tailwind supporting the secular outlook for the asset class as the world emerges from this crisis.

Manraj Sekhon is chief investment officer at Franklin Templeton Emerging Markets Equity.