Markets rally, but investors look beyond the Brics
- 11 February 2013
- From the section Business
It's been quite a January: the best since 1989 for the FTSE, the Dow over 14,000, the S&P 500 over 1,500.
Even the poor old Nikkei has risen 7% this year on hopes that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's new administration will be pouring money into the system.
Investors continue to treat Spain and Italy with contempt - the bond market may have been rescued by the promises of the European Central Bank but the economy really shows no sign of going anywhere fast, and equity investors know that.
But there are several other economies which have also lagged in terms of their equity performance - namely the Brics - Brazil, Russia, India and China. They did not have a good 2012.
China has started 2013 well largely because of a set of good economic numbers on trade, which suggests domestic as well as export growth.
But in Brazil the Bovespa has had a terrible time, already falling some 4% this year.
Investors still need to be convinced the Indian economy is on track and January was an unimpressive month for the Sensex. The IMF has warned that India has to stop cutting interest rates and somehow find a different way of generating growth.
Russia had a good January, making up for an underperformance last year, and there is some hope there will be a spate of privatisations in the wake of President Putin's declaration that more state firms should be privatised.
The stock exchange is setting an example, planning to float itself on itself, so to speak, raising some $500m (£315m) to upgrade its facilities and so encourage others to follow suit.
However, there is a growing feeling the Brics are yesterday's story (or possibly the last decade's).
For more exciting (and not necessarily risky) returns this year you have to look elsewhere - the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and Turkey have all outperformed, gaining between 4% and 11% in just the last five weeks.
Some of them (Pakistan is the most obvious case) are defying political scandals, terrorism and social unrest to post 4% gains in January on the back of outsize profits in the telecom and oil and gas exploration sectors.
In Thailand - up 7.5% since the New Year - the market has been helped by a raft of initial public offerings and a boom in cross-border takeovers by Thai companies.
But the Stock Exchange of Thailand is also becoming a hub, connecting its securities trading with that of Malaysia and Singapore, and helping Laos develop its fledgling equity and bond market.
It has also signed a memorandum of understanding to help Burma do the same. By the by, the Laos market, tiny and illiquid, is up 17% in the last five weeks.
The Philippines has for decades resolutely defied the expectations that have been heaped upon it since the end of the Marcos era, and underperformed with monotonous regularity.
However, the fundamentals really do look convincing now: low inflation of about 3-3.5%, growth estimated at above 6% through to 2016, strong consumption, election spending and rising foreign investor interest.
Dependent on Big Three
The economist Nouriel Roubini, who famously predicted the 2008 financial crisis and has continued to maintain a determinedly gloomy attitude to the world economy ever since, had unexpectedly cheerful comments for the Philippines earlier this month, predicting 7% growth and praising its economic success based on fiscal and governance reforms.
He even predicted the rating agencies would grant it an investment grade rating - a stamp of approval for foreign investors. At present, the country's rating is a notch below investment grade.
Turkey was another star last year, with the equity index rising 28%, but there are increasing risks, not least of which is the situation on its southern borders.
There is also an inflation risk: the rate jumped to 7.3% in January from 6.1% in December. And that may mean an ending of the loose monetary policy interest. Furthermore there is the uncertainty of elections in 2014.
In the end, though, many of these outperforming emerging markets are utterly dependent on the health of the three big economies: the United States, the European Union and China.
If, however, you are convinced that a recovery is under way, or at the very least, some stability has been achieved, the minnows swimming around the big economies may well be the best bet.