The Most-Promising Emerging and Frontier Markets Ranked

South Korea, China and the Gulf Nations lead our annual ranking of developing markets amid a rout that has hit two of the BRIC countries.


By mid-December, it looked like 1998 all over again.

Stocks, bonds and currencies across the developing world were plummeting, as they had 16 years earlier when Russia surprised investors by defaulting on its debt. On Dec. 15, a Bloomberg index tracking 20 big emerging-markets currencies fell to its lowest level in a decade. The Russian ruble fell past 64 to the dollar for the first time ever, as the price of oil sank and international sanctions took hold.

Bonds issued by Brazilian oil giant Petrobras Brasileiro SA nosedived amid a massive corruption probe. In December alone, investors pulled more than $4 billion from emerging-markets exchange-traded funds, erasing 48 percent of the inflow for the year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Zig Zag Towers, Doha, Qatar

The so-called Zig Zag Towers in Doha, Qatar, are part of the Gulf nation’s vibrant real estate sector. Qatar last year was moved by MSCI from its frontier to it emerging market index. Bruno Mazodier/Figarophoto/Redux



As the tumult continued into 2015, discerning emerging-markets investors saw opportunity, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its March issue. They’re bullish on China, South Korea and, despite a 50-plus percent drop in the oil price in 2014, the Gulf nations.

South Korea tops Bloomberg Markets’ fourth annual ranking of the most-promising emerging nations in which to invest in 2015, with Qatar No. 2, China No. 3 and the United Arab Emirates No. 4. Saudi Arabia heads the list of the most-promising frontier markets.

Both Korea and China look attractive at this stage,

says Mark Mobius, who oversees $40 billion as executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group.

Noting that China and South Korea are oil importers, Mobius says,

Both markets will benefit from low oil prices and relatively high economic growth.

More than half of the market capitalization of South Korea’s Kospi Index of stocks consists of exporters, says Hartmut Issel, head of Asia-Pacific investment at UBS Wealth Management. Samsung Electronics Co. alone accounts for 17 percent of the market.

“The fate of Korean stocks is thus largely determined by how big customers such as the U.S. are doing,” Issel says.

Optimism about Korea is tempered by its competitive weakness against rival Japan.

“A major issue for the Korean market is the relative value of the won versus the yen,” says Jim O’Neill, retired head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management.

The yen fell 11 percent against the won in the 12 months through Feb. 2. A weak currency makes exported goods cheaper.

The South Korean economy grew at an anemic 0.4 percent pace in the three months through December from the previous quarter, according to the Bank of Korea.

China’s markets were unaffected by the emerging-markets crisis, with the Shanghai Composite Index rising 58 percent in 2014, including reinvested dividends, after slumping 3.9 percent in 2013.

“I don’t understand why people are so negative about China,” says O’Neill, who coined the term BRICs in 2001 to highlight the rising economic power of Brazil, Russia, India and China. “I assumed China would grow by 7.5 percent a year this decade,” he says. “So far, it will have averaged 7.9 from 2011 to 2014.”

The Bloomberg Markets emerging and frontier markets rankings are based on 19 measures of the investing climate, from forecasts of gross domestic product growth for the next two years to the ease of doing business.

MSCI Inc., a New York–based publisher of equity indexes, designates countries as emerging or frontier based on a variety of criteria, including trading volumes, restrictions on foreign investors, corporate governance, and currency and political stability.

In 2014, MSCI moved Qatar and the U.A.E. from the frontier to the emerging index, which helped them pull in $3.5 billion from global emerging-markets funds, according to EFG-Hermes Holding SAE.

South Korea, widely considered a developed market, remains on MSCI’s emerging list because of limits on the convertibility of the local currency and restrictions on access to its markets.

Saudi Arabia is classified as frontier because it limits direct investment in its markets to the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. Others can invest only via swaps or ETFs.

In July, Riyadh announced it would remove those restrictions. It may do so in April, according to two people familiar with the matter. That will set the conditions for it to be designated an emerging market as early as 2017, Sebastien Lieblich, head of MSCI Index Research, told Bloomberg in July.

The Saudi stock market had a market cap of $537.36 billion as of Feb. 2, making it the biggest market in the Middle East by far. The Tadawul All Share Index rose 3.1 percent in the 12 months through Feb. 11. Among its listed stocks are Saudi Basic Industries Corp., one of the world’s largest petrochemical producers; Al Rajhi Bank, the biggest Islamic lender; and Kingdom Holding Co., the investing vehicle of billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud.

The oil price plunge is certain to carve a hole in the budgets of the Gulf oil and gas exporters. The government of Saudi Arabia is already projecting a budget deficit of $39 billion for 2015. Yet the government of the late King Abdullah refused to countenance a reduction of oil production to drive up prices in meetings of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The king died at the age of 90 in January and was succeeded by the crown prince, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Analysts didn’t expect the kingdom’s oil policy to change under Salman, 79.

Money managers point out that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations can easily fund their ambitious domestic development projects by drawing on the dollar reserves they built up while petroleum prices were high.

“GCC governments have accumulated massive surpluses in the past decade thanks to elevated energy prices,” says Dubai-based Rami Sidani, the head of frontier markets investing at Britain’s Schroder Investment Management.

The reserve amounts are  $726.5 billion for the Saudis, $74.7 billion for the U.A.E. and $42.2 billion for Qatar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“The main growth driver in this part of the world is government spending,” Sidani says, “and we expect these governments to proceed with that in order to diversify their economies.”

That makes consumer companies, real estate and the banks that fund them a good bet, says Hootan Yazhari, managing director for global frontier markets at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He recommends Dubai-based Emaar Properties PJSC and Abu Dhabi–based Aldar Properties PJSC, First Gulf Bank PJSC and Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank PJSC.

In Saudi Arabia, clothing retailer Fawaz Abdulaziz Alhokair & Co. and bookstore chain Jarir Marketing Co. are among Merrill Lynch’s top picks.

Elsewhere in the developing world, the crisis has opened a rift among the BRICs.

“These four countries could hardly be more heterogeneous at this point,” says UBS’s Issel. He sees continuing turmoil in Brazil, No. 16 in the ranking, and Russia, No. 22, in 2015.

“In Russia, recession is inevitable,” he says.

At the same time, investors glow with enthusiasm for the other two BRIC nations.

“We are most excited about the new governments in China and India, who have put reforms in place that will benefit the economy and financial markets in 2015,” says Pearlyn Wong, a Singapore-based investment analyst for Switzerland’s Bank Julius Baer & Co.

Narendra Modi took over as India’s prime minister with a reformist economic agenda on May 26. Since then, the benchmark S&P BSE Sensex stock index was up 16 percent as of Feb. 11.

China’s equity market should get a boost in 2015 from the stock-connect program that allows foreign investors to buy mainland shares through the Hong Kong market, says Adam Tejpaul, head of Asian investments at J.P. Morgan Private Bank. China will also benefit from lower energy prices and a dovish monetary policy by the People’s Bank of China, which will provide liquidity to the country’s markets, Tejpaul says.

“Company fundamentals in the mainland are increasingly positive,” says Andrew Gillan, head of Asia (ex-Japan) equities at Henderson Global Investors. “Favored holdings include Baidu, which dominates the Internet search market.”

Henderson also likes Brilliance China Automotive Holdings Ltd., a joint venture partner with Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, and Dongfeng Motor Group Co., which has partnerships with Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co.

China is the world’s biggest auto market.

Long-term investors shouldn’t be deterred by the current turmoil, Mobius says.

“Three key themes remain in place,” he says. “Emerging markets’ economic growth rates in general continue to be markedly faster than those of developed markets, emerging markets have much greater foreign reserves than developed markets, and the sovereign-debt-to-GDP ratios of emerging-market countries generally remain much lower than those of developed markets.”

Even with major nations like Russia and Brazil hobbled by low commodities prices, scandal and sanctions, Mobius concludes, growth rates — and share prices — in developing markets will outpace those in the U.S., Europe and Japan in 2015.


How We Crunched the Numbers


Bloomberg ranked frontier and emerging markets based on their overall investment potential through 2016. We used data from Bloomberg, MSCI, FTSE, Standard & Poor’s and JPMorgan to decide whether a country was emerging or frontier.

Countries were awarded points for their performance in each of 19 indicators. For each variable, the worst-performing country received zero points while the best performing received the maximum number of points assigned to that variable, according to its weight. All other countries received points between these two extremes. Points were summed into a total score, with the range being zero to 100. All data were the latest available as of Jan. 2.

Economic indicators got 40 percent of the weight in the ranking and included: average projected GDP growth for 2015 and 2016, plus projected inflation rate, government debt as a percentage of GDP, total investment as a percentage of GDP and current-account balance as a percentage of GDP. Also included were the current labor participation rate, foreign reserves as a percentage of GDP and World Economic Forum infrastructure score.

Financial indicators also got 40 percent of the weight in the ranking. They included the price-to-book ratio of the primary equity index, liquidity of the primary equity index over three years, exchange-rate volatility over three years, two-year sovereign-debt credit-default-swap spread and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s banking risk score.

Political and social measurements (20 percent) included Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index score, the EIU’s political risk score, the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business score and the adult literacy rate.


–With assistance from Richard Frost in Hong Kong and Alex McIntyre in New York. 

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