Demonstrating the grip that Vietnam still holds on the nation are the questions that have peppered me over the last few days about what the recent trade deal between Washington and Hanoi means for portfolio investors.
The short answer is not much.
The agreement, concluded July 13, marks a historic step toward Vietnam's joining the global economy. If approved by Congress, the deal will lower tariffs and expand trade with Vietnam. Undoubtedly its impact will be greater for Vietnam, bringing jobs and growth to that struggling nation. The deal helps restore some of its advantage as a low-cost producer of goods in the region, an advantage lessened by sluggish economic reform efforts and by China's entry into the
World Trade Organization
The agreement "is good for Vietnam and good for the U.S.," says Paul Matthews, chairman of
Matthews International Funds
. Sounds good for direct investors, but what about portfolio investors?
"Until they have an established stock market,
investing in Vietnam is only of academic interest," says Matthews. Thus, don't look for any Vietnam holdings in Matthews'
Pacific Tiger Fund or
Asian Growth and Income Fund any time soon.
Vietnam and Southeast Asia Fund
closed-end fund was formerly known as the
Templeton Vietnam Fund
, but it changed its name and focus when it ran into a paucity of worthy Vietnamese companies in which to invest. The fund is managed by emerging markets
According to its most recent annual report, as of March 31 the fund has only 12% of its assets in Vietnam, through "direct investments made through companies domiciled in Hong Kong and Singapore." The fund is down 24% and trades at a 28% discount to its net asset value.
The deal with the U.S. certainly augurs better things for Vietnam. In fact, last week its first stock exchange opened, trading four stocks, three days a week. It's a start. In fact, at a dinner party last weekend a 30-something San Francisco lawyer asked me, "How can I play Vietnam?" It's not hard to remember when questions about Vietnam at San Francisco parties had a decidedly different bent.
Meanwhile, demonstrating that interest in emerging markets is widespread -- and that
readers can dip into pretty arcane questions -- a reader asked about Brazilian and Argentine sovereign bonds. The reader, citing the tantalizing returns vs. U.S. Treasuries, asks: "Are the risks worth it?"
After the experience of the past few years, when two emerging markets, Ecuador and Russia, essentially defaulted on their debts, one would think the answer would be easy: "No!"
As the reader notes, emerging market debt offers higher returns then Treasuries, with correspondingly higher risk. Yet, emerging-market bonds, as is the case with their U.S. counterparts, are less risky then comparable stocks. Thus, if one is willing to accept the political and economic risks and high volatility that comes with investing in emerging markets, debt is worth taking a look at. It increases diversification, reduces some of the risk and can offer nice returns.
In fact, "Emerging-markets dollar debt has been the top performer of any fixed-income and equity category," says Joyce Chang, the head of fixed-income research at
, with average returns this year of 10%. She likes Brazil, but is not as excited about Argentina. Overall, she likes countries that are oil exporters, believing the price of oil will stay high for a while. Thus, she favors Russia and Venezuela, but especially Mexico, which has an improving economic and political climate.
For most who want to invest in emerging market debt, mutual funds are the best bet. The strongest performer within the reach of most retail investors is the
J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Debt Fund, up 13% this year. It requires a minimum $2,500 investment and carries an expense ratio of 1.25%. The
Alliance Global Dollar Government Fund is right behind, up 12.5% this year. It requires an initial $250 investment and carries an expense ratio of 1.6%.
Every Monday I answer questions about international investing. Send me yours at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you meet me at a dinner party, feel free to bend my ear...
David Kurapka's Global Portfolio column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on TSC. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he does not own shares in any companies or mutual funds mentioned in this column. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He welcomes your feedback at