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Taking the Long-Term View on Malaysia

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Malaysia made news earlier this week when the ruling coalition government narrowly held control in elections whose outcome was far from certain.

The uncertain outcome has been cited as reason for Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur Composite index lagging other countries in the region. After the election the market rallied as a sort of sigh of relief.

Malaysia is not a new investment destination but it can be a frustrating investment destination. There are no Malaysian ADRs traded on the New York Stock Exchange or the Nasdaq. There are plenty of Malaysian stocks on the pink sheets to choose from but liquidity and market data on these shares can be hard to come by. For many years the easiest investment option has been the iShares MSCI Malaysia ETF (EWM).

Malaysia is an economically important country as a heavy exporter of electronics (think contract manufacturers), energy products and it is the world's second-largest producer of palm oil (although palm oil exports have recently decreased).

EWM is a broad-based fund that serves as a proxy for the Malaysian stock market. Like many Asian markets, the financial sector is by far the largest at 31% followed by industrials and telecom at 12% and consumer staples, consumer discretionary and utilities all at 10%.

Malayan Banking Berhad and CIMB Group Holdings, both banks, are the largest positions in the fund with each one having a 9% weighting. Both banks appear to have a close price correlation with each other and EWM, so it will be difficult for the fund to do well in the face of a downturn in the country's financial sector.


It is also worth noting how little volatility there is in the two bank stocks and the fund. iShares reports that EWM's beta is only 0.22. Beta is a measure of volatility where the S&P 500 is considered to have a beta of 1.00. The lower the beta, the less-volatile the stock or fund is thought to be.

The typically low volatility does not mean the fund can't go down dramatically. During the 1997 "Asian contagion" it fell 80%, and then in the financial crisis a few years ago it fell 52%. It is also a good bet that whenever the next global crisis comes, EWM will again have a large decline.

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