It’s true that the white-hot streak in emerging markets broke last year, and growth is slowing, but that doesn’t mean investors should shun the sector. In fact, now may be a good time to look for attractive long plays. And despite the sudden popularity of exchange traded funds (ETFs), don’t overlook the value proposition that the right mutual funds can bring to your investment strategy.
When it comes to emerging markets, there are challenges and opportunities. The challenges: Emerging-market growth is slowing and storm clouds loom, particularly in the BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India and China. These nations also have major global trading partners that are struggling, and their economies have been vulnerable to Europe’s recent cycle of fear and loathing.
Then there are the opportunities: First, while growth rates have slipped from double-digit gains to the 4%-to-5% range, but those growth levels are likelier to be sustainable.
More significantly, while developed markets are saturated, developing countries have rapidly growing middle classes, meaning there will be more people who can afford to buy a wide array of consumer goods. A World Bank report predicts that the middle class in emerging markets will nearly triple, from 420 million in 2010 to more than 1.2 billion in 2030.
Still, picking individual emerging-market stocks is the not best way for most investors to play this opportunity — mutual funds and ETFs offer broader diversification.
The investment world has fallen head over heels in love with ETFs because they trade over an exchange like stocks, tend to have lower fees and have a lower minimum investment threshold than mutual funds.
But don’t ignore the value proposition of the right mutual funds. Many are very well-suited to a long strategy, which is the true value play in emerging markets because growth in these economies will manifest over time. Sometimes the flexibility of being able to day-trade ETFs encourages investors to sell short on a downtick rather than reap the rewards of a little more patience.
Obviously, there is risk in all investments. Emerging markets are prone to significant volatility, so closely examine your investment objectives and time horizon. That being said, here are four emerging market mutual funds to buy for the returns:
Aberdeen Emerging Markets Fund (MUTF:GEGAX)
This open-end, emerging-market equity fund has been around since 2000 and has a long track record of performance: Its five-year return is 6.6% (nearly double the average of its peers) and its three-year return is 31%. It has nearly $318 million in assets and invests at least 80% of those assets in emerging-market equities or stocks of companies that derive a significant part of their revenues from those countries. The minimum investment is $1,000, and it has a front load of 5.75% and an expense ratio of nearly 1.8.
But the fund manager is Devan Kaloo, head of Aberdeen’s global emerging markets and leader of the company’s London-based team. Kaloo was named one of the U.K.’s “Magnificent Seven” fund managers in 2010.
Acadian Emerging Markets Debt Fund (MUTF:AEMDX)
This open-end, emerging-market bond fund invests at least 80% of its assets in emerging-market bonds, primarily sovereign. AEMDX was launched in December 2010, has a one-year return of 3.6% and a year-to-date return of nearly 10%. Its expense ratio is comparatively low at 0.95, with no front load. It’s paying a current dividend yield of 7.2%.
Top holdings include the HighMark Diversified Money Market, as well as sovereign debt of South Africa, Poland, Thailand and Venezuela. The fund’s managers are John Peta, who heads Acadian’s emerging-markets debt strategy, and quantitative research analyst Brian Carter.
Prudential Emerging Markets Debt Local Currency Fund (MUTF:EMDCX)
Here’s a slightly different emerging-market-debt play: This open-end asset-allocation fund invests in emerging-market currencies and local currency-denominated bonds. The fund turned one year old in March and has assets of $32.6 million. It has a minimum investment of $2,500 (IRA investment is a $1,000 minimum).
There’s no front load, but the expense ratio is nearly 2.1. The year-to-date return is 7.6% and its current dividend yield is 5.1%. The fund is managed by Prudential senior portfolio manager Cathy Hepworth, who has said in the past that emerging-market currency funds provide a good hedge against a weak dollar.
Dreyfus Total Emerging Markets Fund (MUTF:DTMAX)
This is a sort of hybrid emerging-market mutual fund that seeks to reduce the volatility in emerging markets by investing in stocks, debt and currencies. DTMAX turned one year old in March and has assets of $62.3 million. The minimum investment is $1,000; it has a 5.75% front load and an expense ratio of nearly 1.7%. Its year-to-date return is 10.2%.
Alexander Kozhemiakin, managing director of emerging-market strategies for Dreyfus affiliate Standish Mellon, manages the fund. Kozhemiakin takes an innovative view of emerging-market investing, believing that emerging markets are less defined by asset classes than they are by risk. He noted at an investment symposium last year that “you have to diversify your country-level risk when investing in emerging markets.”
As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned investments.