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Emerging Markets Hype Meets Reality

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Bank executives have been hawking pitchbooks at shareholder meetings for months, trying to convince investors that the road to greater profits will be paved with BRICs - shorthand for emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India and China.

In presentations littered with phrases like "leverage the global platform," bankers have touted breathtaking statistics related to emerging-market growth.

They've highlighted the "wealth expansion" and "urbanization" of the "global middle class." One particular PowerPoint, issued by Goldman Sachs (GS - Get Report) was chock full of encouraging charts and graphs , with arrows pointing upward to indicate growth, toward words like "OPPORTUNITY" and away from words like "REGULATION."

"This will be the century of the BRICs," CEO Lloyd Blankfein told a group of investors and industry insiders at a financial-services conference in November where he gave the presentation, adding that "we still, obviously, have a lot of room in which to grow."

Of course, Blankfein wasn't wrong about the potential growth of these economies, but becoming a dynamo in emerging-markets banking isn't quite as simple as those bullish statistics suggest.

"Banks will say, 'There are so many millions of people and so many unsold cars and so many unmade purchases and this is how big the market is and we'll get this much market share and our profit will go up this much,'" says Werner Bonadurer, a former CEO of UBS (UBS) Hong Kong. "It doesn't work that way."

In fact, bankers and consultants who have built their careers around goals similar to Blankfein's say it's difficult, time-consuming, costly and incredibly risky to become an emerging-markets powerhouse. And, as recent turmoil in Egypt has made clear, some of those risks are significant, indefinable and hard to predict.

"European and American banks have been so big elsewhere that they just march in, put up a sign and say, 'Hey, I'm open for business,'" says Bonadurer, who now teaches finance at Arizona State University. "But there's a higher regulatory risk out there, there's a higher legal risk out there, there's a higher political risk out there - those risks are much, much higher in emerging markets and it's very hard to hedge for those risks."

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