Fighting the Global Headwinds
2015 was a tough year for emerging markets and there is considerable uncertainty among investors about the asset class as 2016 begins. In 2015, China's news dominated headlines for most of the year, along with the political and fiscal woes of Brazil and geopolitical events in the Middle East. Commodity prices continued to fall, which, while causing a positive terms-of-trade shock in most of the emerging markets, had a distinctly negative effect on the economies of a few. The Federal Reserve (Fed) finally raised rates after almost a decade and U.S. dollar strength in our view has not been helpful for EM.
With extensive experience in the asset class, we have lived and invested through quite a number of periods of similar angst. As always, we will stick to our philosophy of seeking structural growth at a reasonable price. In many cases, the "price" has become reasonable indeed. Given that we are a fundamental, bottom-up strategy, individual stock selection across the market cap spectrum remains a key contributor to strategy performance. With that said, we can give a sense of where our strategy is positioned in terms of sector and country, describing the context in which our investments operate and are valued.
Financials: We Favor Companies in Real Growth Niches
Generally, the Energy and Materials sectors in emerging markets are very difficult places to find good, non-cyclical growth. In addition, many of the companies in the Telecom and Utility sectors struggle to demonstrate interesting levels of growth. The Consumer Staples sector is a natural area in emerging markets to find structural growth, but it has tended to be very expensive in the last few years and this largely remains the case.
Financials are currently a large weighting for our strategy, but it's important to dig down into the type of financials that we typically hold. We have a definitive bias towards companies in real growth niches; they are often those providing financial services to the "unbanked." Examples include payday lending in Central and Eastern Europe, pawn shops in Mexico, secondhand truck financing in India, and leasing to small- and medium-sized enterprises in Mexico.
Within the Information Technology sector, demand in terms of hardware, smartphones, tablets, PCs, etc., was sluggish in the fourth quarter of 2015 and the bright spot was the Internet space, as e-commerce and "online to offline" (o2o) grew practically everywhere. Finally, we continue to favor Healthcare, clearly a long-running structural growth story as EM consumers appear to dedicate a higher percentage of their increasingly disposable income to their healthcare spend.
China's Transitional Economy is Providing Opportunities
For any investor in emerging markets, China remains at the forefront of discussions. Likewise, it is a critically important country for our emerging markets equity strategy. Investors remain concerned about the depreciation of the currency, the renminbi (RMB), and a messy deleveraging as China's economy transitions away from investment-led, state-controlled growth to expansion that is based more on consumption and services.
Overall, we expect lower but better growth from China with continued monetary and fiscal easing. We expect the RMB to depreciate against the U.S. dollar in a modest and fairly controlled fashion, assuming that the U.S. dollar continues to be strong against other major currencies. (That the dollar will be strong is not necessarily our base view, but if it is strong we expect the RMB to weaken, as measured by the bilateral rate.)
We expect a modest cyclical recovery in China's economy, or at least stabilization, in the first half of 2016. This will allow some more breathing room for further significant structural reforms, with more emphasis on supply-side reforms rather than attempts simply to "juice up" demand. We believe more credit issues are likely, as the tidying up of highly indebted, state-owned enterprise (SOE)-related entities continues. In fact, credit growth has picked up nicely in China, but is obscured by the ongoing swap of debt held in local government finance vehicles for municipal bonds.
Our strategy has very little exposure to China's old, smokestack/SOE complex and we continue to favor areas of China's economy that are still attractive, such as the environment, internet, healthcare, tourism, and insurance.
India was an EM Bright Spot in 2015
India remains a country of very significant investment opportunity for us, despite some disappointments regarding the pace of reforms. In many ways, India is somewhat of an "island" in the turmoil that has afflicted global economies. We do expect rate cuts in the course of the year, which may help to energize the business cycle that disappointed in 2015.
We See No Easy Answer for Brazil
Brazil is still in a depressed state, with no easy solution to its current issues. To restore confidence will require a political change and/or time, in our view. Although we have a high degree of confidence in the positions we hold and their ability to grow even in the face of economic weakness, we are not inclined to add to risk in Brazil at this juncture.
Quality Growth Bubble
One of the buzz phrases that has been bandied about recently is the "quality growth bubble" in emerging markets, meaning that the valuations of companies that have quality characteristics appear to be at a significant premium to other companies in the emerging markets. We have two points to make about this. First, as far as we can see, this seems to be a problem that is really associated with large-cap companies in emerging markets. Our emerging markets equity strategy is truly an all-cap strategy and we do not see overvaluation among mid- and small-cap "quality growth" companies. Second, we do think that in a world that is relatively starved of growth, the higher relative certainty of growth that tends to come from companies with quality characteristics does deserve a premium.
Optimism for 2016 on the Back of Attractive Valuations
It seems the emerging markets asset class is a bit out of favor right now, and while it is hard to predict the timing of a change in investor sentiment, cheap valuations and negative positioning set the stage for better returns down the road. On a positive note, we anticipate more stability in China's economic numbers (and less hysteria in the headlines) and we are encouraged that we have started down the road of Fed tightening. A combination of Fed tightening and attractive emerging markets valuations has historically set up good emerging markets performance and we certainly hope that this will be the case in 2016.
This blog supports our Emerging Markets Equity strategy which seeks to uncover opportunities that exhibit "structural growth at a reasonable price" ("S GARP") through investment in emerging market securities across all market capitalizations. This means we seek companies transitioning from value to growth that are fueled by a structural shift in country, sector, or stock fundamentals, with prolonged, inherent growth that is neither opportunistic nor event catalyst dependent. We aim to focus on companies with strong and innovative management, robust business models, proven track records, high barriers to entry, and a positive attitude toward minority shareholders.
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Please note that Van Eck Securities Corporation offers investment portfolios that invest in the asset class(es) mentioned in this commentary. The Emerging Markets Equity strategy is subject to the risks associated with its investments in emerging markets securities, which tend to be more volatile and less liquid than securities traded in developed countries. The Emerging Markets Equity strategy's investments in foreign securities involve risks related to adverse political and economic developments unique to a country or a region, currency fluctuations or controls, and the possibility of arbitrary action by foreign governments, including the takeover of property without adequate compensation or imposition of prohibitive taxation. The Emerging Markets Equity strategy is subject to risks associated with investments in derivatives, illiquid securities, and small or mid-cap companies. The Emerging Markets Equity strategy is also subject to inflation risk, market risk, non-diversification risk, and leverage risk. Please see the prospectus and summary prospectus for information on these and other risk considerations.
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