I'm focused like a laser beam on emerging markets this year, because there is much more at play than just relative strength. This is where the economic growth in the world is occurring. I hope you are participating. And if you're not, don't worry - there's still time to get in and make a profit before the mainstream catches on.
Let's take a look at a few of my favorite plays right now, beginning with Singapore and Thailand - two economies I told investors to keep an eye on earlier this month.
Starting with Singapore
Singapore's $182 billion economy rebounded from last year's global slump faster than other economies in the region, as it's up 15% this year. Regional analysts anticipate it will expand at a record 14.9% pace this year, due to improving demand for the city-state's exports. That's up from an estimate of 9% published three months ago. Singapore's economy relies on trade, finance and tourism. Its central bank said the surge would be led by a 29% expansion of manufacturing.
The two new casino complexes that were opened earlier in the year also have given the economy a boost. They were built at a cost of $10 billion in an effort to expand Singapore's stature as a destination rather than just a waypoint for global travelers.The M Hotel in Singapore's business district once struggled to fill its rooms on weekends as visiting executives tended to leave by Friday, according to The China Post. Now it enjoys 90%-plus occupancy rate.
"I'm looking out of my window at the new skyline. What has developed over the last five years has been amazing," Hanspeter Brummer, chief executive for Asia at Swiss private bank BSI, told the newspaper from his office, which overlooks the new Marina Bay financial district. Australian companies like BHP Billiton Ltd. (NYSE:BHP) and Macquarie Group Ltd. (PINK:MQBKY) lease space in the new Marina Bay office towers.
The new business district was built on reclaimed land around the mouth of the Singapore River, and comprises not just office skyscrapers but also shops, condos, theaters and the Marina Bay Sands casino, which was built by Las Vegas Sands Corp. (NYSE:LVS). The district sports the world's biggest Ferris wheel, restaurants that feature celebrity chefs, and the world's first Formula One circuit where races can run at night.
To show how far Singapore has come, the city-state this week will play host to a Formula One grand prix race, as well as performances by musical artists Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott, Adam Lambert and Daughtry. Indeed, Singapore's growth has been so explosive the government, concerned about the potential for a property bubble, has upped minimum down payments on second mortgages.
''There is a danger of a property bubble forming, given the strong momentum of the market and a likely slowdown in the pace of economic growth as well as the economic uncertainties ahead,'' Mah Bow Tan, the island's national development minister, said last week in parliament.
Private residential prices have climbed for four straight quarters, reaching a new high in the second quarter of this year. Some 14,688 homes were sold last year, according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority. That's just shy of the record 14,811 transacted in 2007.
Still Singapore warrants a close eye, even if it means simply investing in the iShares MSCI Singapore Index Fund (NYSE:EWS).
The Talk About Thailand
Thailand is the base of another strong economy located around the South China Sea. The Thai currency, the baht, earlier this month rose to its highest level since 1997 due to an improved outlook for economic growth and expectations of more investor inflows. A current-account surplus of $5.42 billion this year through July and the fact that the Bank of Thailand has raised its benchmark interest rate twice this year have also helped the baht post the second-best performance among Asia's most-traded currencies excluding the yen.
Thailand's Finance Ministry, on Monday, raised its 2010 economic growth forecast for the third time in six months after exports surged in the first half of the year and local demand recovered. Gross domestic product (GDP) may expand 7.3% to 7.8% in 2010, with a mid-point forecast of 7.5%, said Satit Rungkasiri, head of the Thai ministry's Fiscal Policy Office.
Exports rose 48% year-over-year in the second quarter. The country's exports sector is highly reliant on Chinese and U.S. economies, but one interesting side note is that Thai-Malaysian trade could hit a record $20 billion this year, according to Bernama, Malaysia's national news agency.
Malaysia is the fifth-largest investor in Thailand after Japan, the United States, Singapore, and China. Most trade is industry-based but tourism is also big. Consider that 940,000 Malays visited Thailand this year while 700,000 Thais visited Malaysia.
Indeed, tourism is rebounding faster than expected after the political bloodshed of the spring. Some 10 million foreign visitors arrived in Thailand in the first eight months of this year, up 13% from 2009. The iShares MSCI Thailand Index Fund (NYSE:THD) is up 30% since the start of July. So stick with it for now, even if there's some volatility, as latecomers should continue to push values higher.
One of the most remarkable and little-noted events of the past month has been the stellar performance of the Turkish stock market, which investors can get a piece of through the iShares MSCI Turkey Index Fund (NYSE:TUR). Istanbul's ISE 100 Index smashed through its all-time high in July, and by mid-September, the index was trading around 63,400 - up 20% from the beginning of the year.
Turkey's economy grew 10.3% year-over-year in the second quarter, solidifying the country's leading position among emerging markets. The government said it expects GDP growth to come in at 7% for the year. A lot of the growth is external as Turkish construction companies have become leading builders in the Persian Gulf and Russia, but growth at home was the most impressive this quarter.
Manufacturing grew 15.4% in the second quarter, while the domestic construction industry expanded 22% and trade grew 14%. Non-state consumption grew 6.2%, while government consumption grew 3.6%.
These are outstanding numbers for a small economy. And due to the wonder of low-cost exchange-traded funds, it's a simple matter for us to participate in this growth in a way that would have completely eluded investors just five years ago. It's TUR's turn.
Latin America Heating Up
Finally, Latin America is an underdog unleashed. In Brazil, nearly two million new jobs were created in the first eight months of this year. That's three-times the number of jobs created in the United States, which has 120 million more residents, and an economy that's five-times larger than that of Brazil.
In Peru, economic growth hit 9.1% in July. And while the United States, Japan, and United Kingdom drown in debt, Chile - the world's largest copper producer - is now a net creditor.
In fact, public debt levels throughout Latin America are well below those of most developed countries, including Canada. Chile's central bank on Sept. 17 boosted interest rates to 2.5%. That was the fourth interest rate increase in as many months. The Chilean economy, fifth largest in South America, is on track to rise 6.5% in the second quarter, the best since 2005.
Right now I'd say Chile is an even better bet than Brazil. You might take a look at Vina Concha y Toro SA (NYSE:VCO), a producer of very-high-quality wine. It's currently trading at 21 times earnings, with a dividend of 3.92%. That's a somewhat premium valuation, but I like the dividend and Vina Concha is unquestionably a premium company.