As India Turns a Spry 70, Here's How U.S. Investors Can Join the Party

After Pakistan celebrated the same milestone yesterday, it's India's turn to turn 70 today. August 14 and 15, 1947, marked the partition of the British Raj into the two countries, an event that led to an estimated 1 million deaths and caused around 11 million people to cross between Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-dominant India.

Let's face it, Pakistan and India are never going to be best buds. Pointedly, on the shared anniversary of the creation of their countries, the leader of neither nation wished the other one an independence "Happy Birthday."

But they're in stasis. Kashmir is always contentious, but the leaders seem to have their nuclear arsenals locked safely away. Most memories now focus more on enmity over test cricket matches than the end-of-era partition at the close of World War II.

I've noticed a real resurgence in interest in India among investors over the last 18 months or so. Actually, you could call it a surgence - there really wasn't any interest before.

That's because investing in India has not been easy. But investors looking for emerging-market exposure should look at it now.

Years back, I asked an institutional real estate investor who was running a large Asian property portfolio whether he ever looked at India. Never, he said, with a roll of his eyes. The market is impossible to navigate, he felt, with title for properties inevitably split between multiple generations of heirs. Those squabbling family members could never agree on anything, let alone the sales price for their prize asset. 

Many industries were off-limits to foreign direct investment, too. That changed substantially with the "Make In India" program introduced in 2014, which opened 25 sectors to international capital. India has its eye on stimulating certain industries in particular such as automobiles, telecoms and biotechnology. Capital inflows leaped 46% the following year, with foreign direct investment hitting $55.5 billion in the 2015-16 tax year.

That flow should continue. India is into the fourth year of market-friendly "rule" under reform-minded, business-friendly conservative Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Institutional investors buy that story, with companies such as Blackstone (BX) placing major bets on projects there. 

I know the India portion of my portfolio was doing very well before I offloaded it. The iShares India ETF that I bought last year generated a return of around 22% before I locked in the gains with a sale in June, and the market has continued to advance.

U.S. investors can gain exposure through the iShares MSCI ETF (INDA) , up 25.7% in 2017, or consider concentrated exposure such as the VanEck Vectors India Small-Cap Index ETF (SCIF) , up 37.0% so far this year. I hesitate to recommend chasing such gains, but the interest is merited if India continues to succeed in pushing structural change.

There are specific segment plays, too, such as with the Columbia India Consumer ETF (INCO) , up 32.4% this year. That's incredible performance when you consider that India in November rendered 86% of all the cash in an all-cash economy useless. Holders of 500 rupee ($7.50) and 1,000 rupee ($15) notes had to return them to the bank to get anything for their money. 

Because the central bank was as in the dark as anyone over the government's stunt, there was rationing of the amount of "cash money" you could withdraw. The cash crunch left folks such as farmers, who do almost all their trade in money that folds, with crops rotting on the back of their trucks because people were literally unable to produce the goods for produce goods.

Economists were shocked when no disruption showed up in India's figures for the last three months of 2016. The implication was that India was, as many suspected and I explained at the time, just making up the numbers. But the follow-through came in the figures for the first quarter of 2017 instead, when growth slowed to 6.1%, a full percentage point below expectations.

GDP gains seem now to be back on track. The government forecasts growth of 6.75% to 7.5% for fiscal 2018, and most economists envision growth north of 6% every year for the next decade.

Given the amount of red tape that exists in the world's biggest bureaucracy, it's no surprise that the paperwork tracking demonetization took some time to file. India's rules are not easy to follow. Scratch that. Let's say never.

India as of July 1 put in place a national sales tax, its first such nationwide levy. That's designed to streamline state-to-state business. But rather than a single rate, the path chosen by most nations, India has opted to introduce six tiers. You pay sales tax of 0% on essential goods, through 5%, 12%, and on to a standard rate of 18%. There's then a 28% tax for luxury items, which have another penalty on top of them that brings the rate to more than 40%!

Bring your calculator to the checkout if you want to figure out what you'll pay, in other words.

Foreign retailers have had onerous requirements in the past. "Single-brand retailers" were only able to own 51% of a local operation until 2012, when the government began allowing 100% ownership of stores. There's a requirement that those companies source 30% of their goods within India, but that's been put on hold for three years, providing a window of opportunity for companies such as Apple (AAPL) , which currently has no Indian stores.

The bottom line for the consumer-focused ETF, though, is that the rules for retail are loosening, gradually, and in a very India-specific way.

There's another good sector play in the Columbia India Infrastructure ETF (INXX) , up 33.2% in 2017. Infrastructure investment in particular makes eminent sense in India, where the old cities are so decrepit that it's easier in many cases to start and build an entirely new satellite city than give the original one an overhaul.

There's also a leveraged product on offer, the Direxion Daily India Bull 3x Shares ETF (INDL) , but those products are for short-term, preferably daily trading only. Over time, the triple exposure plus the cost of the derivatives used to generate it produces performance that inevitably varies wildly from the performance of the underlying Indian index. That's sometimes in your benefit, sometimes painfully at your cost.

India's $2.4 trillion economy ranks seventh in the world, and is the second-largest emerging nation behind China. While Pakistan remains India's arch-enemy, relations aren't too good with its population rival, either. That's all the more true in recent days, with a border dispute yet to be resolved high in the Himalayas over yet another poorly demarcated boundary line that's a legacy of British rule.

India feels it has operated in China's shadow for too long. At 1.34 billion people now according to Oxford Economics, it will surpass China, now at 1.41 billion, in terms of sheer volume of people by 2022, according to U.N. figures. And, where China was once posting double-digit GDP gains year after year, India's economic growth rate of 7.9% leads the world.

Economically, India soon should overtake has-been economies such as France and the United Kingdom, and what pleasure there will be in overtaking the former colonial power. The transition already has been widely and erroneously reported in domestic and international media. A Forbes contributor made that assumption with a back-of-the-envelope math based on the devaluation of the pound post-Brexit, but he didn't factor in any other factors, as The Hindu explains, including swings in the Indian currency.

Still, India isn't far off on its way to doubling its economy within the next 12 years, hitting $5.3 trillion in 2029. After many a false start, it's a good time to get on the Indian market train before it's too far gone.

At the time of publication, Alex McMillan had no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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