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Is it Time to Bolt from Emerging Market Investments?

By Hal M. Bundrick

NEW YORK (MainStreet) Emerging market (EM) stocks are the hot sauce of your portfolio. They can provide a quick kick to your performance, but a little can go a long way. And prepare for occasional heartburn. In light of recent, even higher volatility, is it time to put your EM holdings back on the shelf?

"While the outlook for emerging market economic growth remains relatively muted when compared to last year, recent data trends suggest that the slowdown may not be as severe as feared," writes Thomas S. White, Jr., president and chief investment officer for Thomas White International, in an analysis. "Chinese economic growth for the third quarter was robust, when seen in the context of the current global environment. Europe is gradually climbing out of a recession while Japan appears to have succeeded in stimulating its economy through extraordinary policy measures, after a long period of subpar growth and deflation."

But recent economic data trends over the past few months have been pointing to subdued growth, prompting the IMF and the World Bank to lower the current year growth forecasts for the emerging world, according to White.

"Despite the weaker export growth towards the end of the quarter, the Chinese economy expanded at a faster than expected 7.8% during the July-September period," writes White. "Manufacturing activity was also relatively subdued across most emerging economies, especially when compared to the developed world which is seeing acceleration."

Harold L. Sirkin, senior partner and Managing Director for The Boston Consulting Group, says sharp swings in exchange rates, swooning equity markets and slowing growth are warning signs that investors in emerging markets over the past three decades have seen before. And when they flash in a number of economies simultaneously, the outcome often is not good.

"So what should we make of the volatility that seems to be suddenly sweeping some of the world's most dynamic developing economies, including China, India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, and Mexico? For the next few years at least, companies will have to learn to shift gears, perhaps frequently, as they navigate the global economy," Sirkin writes in an overview. "Instead of treating all the big developing economies as emerging markets, they must learn to approach them as diverging markets -- economies that are growing at different speeds, experiencing different degrees of financial health, and facing different structural challenges."

Recent surveys of international executives have indicated that risks are growing in emerging markets. Even in China, a significant number of companies say that profits and growth have stalled. But Sirkin says emerging markets will remain the biggest sources of growth for decades.

"All the short-term anxiety does not diminish the reality that emerging markets still present companies with some of the greatest opportunities for growth over the medium and long term," he writes. "China's economy is still booming by world standards, most African economies are growing at a 5-6% clip, and the Philippines are expanding at an annualized rate of around 7%. For the next several years, the GDPs of rapidly developing economies are projected to grow several percentage points on average faster than those of developed economies."

But investors will need to skillfully navigate the market, Sirkin adds.

"Now more than ever, distinguishing carefully among emerging markets and making fact-based, reasoned decisions about which direction to take in each of them can be the difference between tremendous success and weak performance," he writes.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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