NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Emerging markets generally grow faster than developed ones, so it's natural to want to invest in these markets to take advantage of this. But apart from political risk and mad dictators, there is also the constant risk that a country could run out of money in a global credit crunch and sharply reverse growth and destroy value. Investors in emerging markets should thus look at one statistic above all others: the country's balance of payments.
In looking at how much money, or credit, a country receives through public or private transactions versus how much it has doled out, otherwise known as a debit, investors can determine whether an emerging markets country is facing a balance of payments deficit -- a key danger factor.
The financial crisis of 2008-2009 showed emerging market debt flows are highly dependent on global liquidity conditions. With the volume of bond issues falling by half in 2008, compared to 2007, investors saw trading volume fall by a third. In a credit crisis, countries with a balance of payments deficit won't be able to finance debt and the value of businesses in the region will collapse. A
will also affect trade flows, so countries that are heavily dependent on oil, or other commodities, will see balance of payments deteriorate rapidly. As a result, balance of payments is the most important economic factor in choosing investments in emerging markets.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) organization noted in its October 2014 "World Economic Outlook" a list of 17 countries expected to run account surpluses in 2014 and 2015. Of these countries, four have a combination of investable stock markets and reasonably stable business-friendly regimes, making them attractive places to invest.
Here's a fail-safe emerging markets portfolio that avoids the risk of a credit crisis:
China is forecast to continue running a balance of payments surplus in 2014-15. In addition, it has over $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Even though its banking system contains huge amounts of unrecognized bad debts against real estate and its official forecast of 7% growth is probably overstated, it is in no danger of a liquidity crunch for the country as a whole. And China's position as the No. 1 automobile market indicates how far it has traveled. I prefer HAO to a general China fund, because by investing in companies with less than $1.5 billion market capitalization it avoids the big state behemoths that are often badly run. The fund has a 2% yield, an acceptable 0.76% expense ratio and an attractive P/E of 11.
The IMF expects Malaysia to have a balance of payments surplus over 4% of GDP in 2014-2015. That figure may ultimately be lower, given Malaysia is a modest oil exporter. The IMF also forecasts growth of over 5% for both years, a healthy rate since Malaysia is already well up in the middle income scale at $17,500 GDP per capita. One thing to note is that poor countries generally grow faster than rich ones. EWM has a yield of 3.6%, a P/E ratio of 17 times and an expense ratio of a low 0.48%.
The Philippines is expected to enjoy a balance of payments surplus of around 3% of GDP in 2014-2015, according to the IMF forecast. It is also anticipated to capture stellar growth of 6%, even though the region is much poorer than Malaysia with a GDP per capita of only $4,700. Like Malaysia, the Philippines is solidly in the democratic camp. EPHE has a yield of only 0.8%, a P/E of 19 and an expense ratio of 0.62%.
Thailand, according to the IMF forecast, is anticipated to post a modest balance of payments surplus in 2014-15, but the country may do better than that because it benefits from lower oil prices. The country suffered severe political unrest and a military coup earlier this year and, as a result, the IMF is forecasting growth of only 1% in 2014. But for next year, it projects growth above 4%. In Thailand, the GDP per capita is $9,900, which is between the wealth of residents in Malaysia and the Philippines. THD is cheap at only 13 times earnings with a yield of 2.2% and an expense ratio of 0.62%.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage. At the time of publication, the author held positions in HAO and EWM.