Emerging Markets in 2015: Another Very Bad Year

Morningstar does not advocate dumping asset classes when times are tough. But it might be helpful to dig into what’s been happening during the past few year.

Patricia Oey 18.02.2016
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Investors may be tempted give up on their emerging markets equity funds, as many of them have been down for three consecutive calendar years while U.S. markets have been strong. On average, emerging markets funds have declined 5.7% annualized during the past three years, compared with the S&P 500’s 15.1% return during the same period.

Morningstar does not advocate dumping asset classes when times are tough. But it might be helpful to dig into what’s been happening during the past few years to get a better understanding of the complicated dynamics that drive the performance of emerging markets funds.

Emerging Markets: A Diverse Asset Class
“Emerging markets” is a blanket term. The group is made up of about 20 countries, each with its own distinct policies, currencies, economic orientation, and companies. So while emerging-markets funds have been declining during the past three years, there have been large performance differences among the individual markets.

Generally, the countries that have been underperforming are commodity exporters such as Brazil, Russia, and South Africa (see Exhibit 1). Declining commodity prices have been a significant headwind for the economies of these countries, with Brazil and Russia actually reporting a decline in gross domestic product in 2015.

160218 EM(en) 01

But a key reason for emerging-markets funds’ dismal returns has been the rising U.S. dollar. This is because the value of foreign investments, when translated into U.S. dollars, falls as foreign currencies decline in value against the dollar. Most notably, during the past three years, the Brazilian real, Russian ruble, and South African rand have each declined about 50%, cumulatively, against the U.S. dollar. To see the impact of these currency declines on market returns, Exhibit 2 compares the annualized three-year returns of individual countries in U.S. dollars (blue bars) and in local currencies (red bars). Countries that experienced sharp declines in the value of their currency against the dollar exhibited the largest difference in local-currency returns versus U.S. dollar returns. In fact, without currency translation effects, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index would have generated a positive, albeit small, return of 1.2% annualized during the past three years. In contrast, the benchmark returned negative 6.4% annualized during that span—which includes currency translation effects, as the index is priced in U.S. dollars.

160218 EM(en) 02

The Impact of China
In Exhibit 2, the MSCI China Index’s returns in local currency and U.S. dollars are almost identical. This is because the Chinese currency is soft-pegged to the dollar. As a result, China is one the few major markets (among emerging and developed countries) whose U.S. dollar-based returns were not negatively affected by the rising U.S. dollar. The Chinese equity market, as defined by the MSCI

China Index (comprising Hong Kong and New York listings of Chinese firms) is significantly larger than other individual emerging markets. As such, Chinese stocks account for roughly a fourth of the portfolios of funds that track the MSCI Emerging Markets Index (or other market-cap-weighted indexes). However, most actively managed Morningstar Medalists in the diversified emerging-markets Morningstar Category generally have a much smaller allocation to Chinese stocks, mainly because a 25% allocation to one emerging market can be quite risky. In addition, many companies in China are government-controlled and may not always operate in the best interests of minority shareholders.

Unfortunately, betting against China during the past few years may have hurt relative returns, as China outperformed the MSCI Emerging Markets Index (thanks to the lack of negative currency translation effects). Should the Chinese yuan weaken against the U.S. dollar, funds with large allocations in China (namely, index funds) could be significantly affected, especially relative to funds with smaller China allocations.

Valuations
The price declines in emerging-markets funds may suggest that valuations are growing more attractive. Unfortunately, much of the declines were a result of negative currency translation effects. In the three years through December 2015, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index (in U.S. dollars) declined 18% cumulatively but in local currencies rose 2.5%. As for valuations, during that period, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index’s trailing 12-month price/earnings multiple remained fairly range-bound (11–14). In fact, emerging markets, as a whole, have been trading fairly range-bound since the 2008 global financial crisis and do not seem particularly cheap given their slowing growth outlook.

Conclusion
Emerging-markets funds may not be seeing brighter days anytime soon, especially as the U.S. dollar is expected to continue rising against other currencies. At this time, the U.S. dollar may appear to be entering overvalued territory. Historical evidence has shown that currencies can deviate from their fair value in the short term but tend to move back toward fair value over the long term. With that in mind, long-term investors should stay the course and maintain their targeted asset allocations. If an investor wants to make a change in his emerging-markets allocation, I would suggest avoiding funds with a large China weighting, given the uncertainty around the country’s growth, reforms, and currency regime in the near and medium term.

 

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Patricia Oey  Patricia Oey is an ETF analyst at Morningstar.

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