One of the most popular investing themes of the last few years looks ready for a resurrection. I’m talking about foreign stocks, emerging markets ETFs and ADR investments — which attracted a lot of attention in 2009 and 2010 because of the exposure it offered to fast growing economies like China and Brazil as the U.S. economy stalled.
All that changed over the last six months or so as a new problem bubbled to the surface: Inflation, driven by higher food and fuel prices. Global ADRs and emerging market ETF funds fell out of favor as a result. There were structural reasons why foreign economies — and subsequently emerging market ETFs and ADR investments — were more sensitive to rising prices. Alas, as the likes of China and Brazil tightened policy in response — via interest rate hikes, capital controls, and tighter bank capital requirements — investors fled out of fear of diminished economic growth. At the same time, the U.S. economy revved up.
As a result, since October 1 the S&P 500 has climbed nearly 18% while the iShares Emerging Markets (NYSE: EEM) has added only 4.3%. Investors responded by pulling cash out of emerging market mutual funds in a big way: year-to-date they’ve pulling a fifth of the record-setting $95 billion they put to work in EM during 2010 according to EPFR data. But now, for the first time since December, emerging market stocks are perking up.
The catalyst appears to be a renewed slide in the U.S. dollar, which has violated its two-month uptrend today on growing concerns over the budget fight in Washington and the specter of a shutdown of the U.S. government. Also contributing are tough anti-inflation comments coming out of the European Central Bank, which seems to be taking nascent price pressures much more seriously.
The folks over at Trade the News highlighted the fact ECB executive Lorenzo Bini Smaghi stressed the taking of “pre-emptive actions if needed” to prevent so-called “secondary effects” of inflation as food and fuel prices start pushing up prices of finished goods and services.
For their part, the inflation deniers at the Fed planted a piece in the Wall Street Journal today stressing how they aren’t worried about inflation because the price of services remains low. Before, they talked up how food and fuel inflation could be ignored because “core” inflation, which excluded these items, was trending downward. Now that January’s Consumer Price Index data showed core prices moving higher on more expensive clothing and airline tickets, the Fed is just looking for a new justification for its $600 billion “QE2″ money printing operation.
All of this, combined with political gridlock in Washington, is pushing the dollar lower. And because of currency translation effects, this is forcing Wall Street traders to take a look at deeply discounted foreign equities.
The renewed buying interest pushed the iShares Emerging Markets up and over its 20-day moving average as its On Balance Volume indicator suggests heavy accumulation is underway.
For those looking for more focused plays on individual countries, the Market Vectors Indonesia (NYSE: IDX) is work a look after jumping 2.4% today. The Malaysia iShares (NYSE: EWM), the Mexico iShares (EWW), and the iShares Thailand (NYSE: THD) are all also worth a look.
The last time foreign stocks assumed a market leadership role was last May in the wake of the May 6 “flash crash” event — a trend that lasted six months. I believe a similar period of outperformance could be at hand as investors decide that the problems facing the United States are now more serious than those faced by developing economies.
Disclosure: Anthony does not own or control a position in any of the companies or funds mentioned. He has recommended IDX, EWM, and EWW to his newsletter subscribers.
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