NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - As the ETF industry expands, with new products tracking increasingly remote regions of the globe, the road has taken some twists and turns. Thus far, the trend in investor interest has been shifting from developed countries to increasingly narrow emerging market investments. The iShares MSCI-EAFE ETF ( EFA), a fund that tracks established countries in Europe as well as Japan, saw net outflows of $1 billion in 2008 and $4 billion as of Nov. 30, 2009, according to recent data from the National Stock Exchange. iShares MSCI Japan ( EWJ), a more specific, developed market ETF, had net outflows of $1.7 billion of 2008, and is set to have net outflows of at least $1 billion in 2009. While EFA and EWJ are still among the largest and most liquid ETFs trading today, the trend in international investing has markedly shifted towards broad-based emerging market funds. According to data from the National Stock Exchange, two out of the top 10 largest ETFs --measured by total assets -- are broad-based emerging market funds . The larger of the two, the iShares MSCI-Emerging Markets ETF ( EEM), was launched in April of 2003, and had $37.3 billion in assets as of Nov. 30, 2009. Vanguard's MSCI Emerging Markets ETF ( VWO), launched in March of 2005, had more than $17.6 billion in assets as of Nov. 30. While assets have flowed out of EFA and EWJ, net assets have increased dramatically for EEM and VWO. During 2008, EEM had a net cash flow of $2.3 billion while VWO had a net cash flow of $3.3 billion. Year to date in 2009, EEM's net cash flow has been $4 billion, while VWO has attracted a net cash flow of more than $7.7 billion.
As investors' appetite for risk has increased, focused emerging market funds have also gained ground. Since their respective launches in January and May of 2009, the Market Vectors Indonesia Index ETF ( IDX) and Market Vectors Small Cap Brazil ETF ( BRF) have captured the attention of emerging market investors. IDX, slow out of the gate in January, now has an average daily trading volume of nearly 100,000 shares and total assets of $181 million. BRF, which taps into small-cap exposure not offered by many popular Brazil funds, has total assets of $609 million and an average daily trading volume of 498,000 shares. While country-specific emerging market funds like BRF and IDX have attracted ample investor interest, there seem to be some regions of the globe into which investors are less likely to travel. If emerging market ETFs are the latest trend in international investing, "frontier" market funds hope to be the next hot spot for ETF investors. In July of 2008, the Market Vectors Gulf States Index ETF ( MES), WisdomTree Middle East Dividend ETF ( GULF) and PowerShares MENA Frontier Countries ( PMNA) joined the ETF universe in rapid succession. In August of 2008, Market Vectors also launched an Africa Index ETF ( AFK). While these funds have certainly broadened the spectrum of emerging market ETF investments, none of the frontier funds has yet to gain steam. So far, MES, GULF and PMNA have attracted just $8 million, $10 million and $12.4 million in assets respectively. AFK has attracted a slightly larger $34 million in assets, but all four funds have low daily trading volumes. Thus far, frontier market funds have been plagued by a combination of bad timing and expensive investment strategies. The launch of new ETF funds is often behind the curve of investment trends. Oil prices surged in early 2008, as PowerShares, WisdomTree and Market Vectors all readied to launch their new funds focused on oil-producing emerging markets. By the time MES, GULF and PMNA joined the market in July of 2008, the oil bubble began to burst.
Restrictions on foreign investing and market capitalization concerns also make these frontier funds pricy. AFK, MES, GULF and PMNA all have relatively high net expense ratios of 0.88%, 1%, 0.88% and 0.95% respectively. Despite the initial difficulties encountered by the new generation of emerging market ETFs, these frontier funds are still worth watching. As ETF issuers navigate the challenges of investing in the most emerging of emerging markets, these first frontier funds will be prototypes for ETFs to come. Meanwhile, the frontier market funds are only suitable for the most risk-tolerant investors. This new generation of emerging-market funds may be worth following, but for now, the best place to watch is from the sidelines. -- Written by Don Dion in Williamstown