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U.S. vs. Emerging Markets Equities Insights: 3Q | 2019

By R. Crit Thomas, CFA, CAIA
International Equities
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Emerging Markets vs. U.S.

We believe equity investors should consider Emerging Market (EM) stock exposure due to the following more secular qualities:

  • Diversification: portfolios that included Emerging Market stocks have historically produced higher risk-adjusted returns (Bouslama and Ouda).
  • Relative Economic Growth: Emerging Markets are expected to account for 70% of global economic growth through 2025 with middle class spending growth being the main driver (McKinsey & Co.).
  • Growing Middle Class: by 2025 Emerging Market consumption will represent approximately half of global consumption (McKinsey & Co).
  • Equity Market Expansion: Emerging Market equities represent only 12% of global equity market capitalization (Source: MSCI), yet their economies represent approximately 40% of global GDP (Source: International Monetary Fund).

But why now?

Conclusion: Emerging Markets struggled in 2018 with much of the underperformance attributed to direct and indirect pressures from a strengthening U.S. Dollar, slowing economic growth in China, and the uncertainty surrounding potential escalation in the trade war between the U.S. and China. To date, the MSCI Emerging Markets Currency Index is up slightly versus the U.S. Dollar and we are beginning to see signs of stabilization in China’s economy. On the other hand, there was escalation in the tariff war that bears watching, though we continue to believe that a compromise will be eventually reached. Attractive valuations and strong longer-term growth prospects keep us drawn to this asset class.

Our views on Emerging Markets Equities are based on historical relative valuations vs. the S&P 500 Index, relative earnings prospects vs. the S&P 500 Index, trends in emerging markets currency, and growth of the middle class.


  • Emerging Markets have historically experienced significant price swings, creating large valuation peaks and valleys. Relative to the S&P 500®, Emerging Markets look attractive. On a relative Price/Book basis and on a relative Price/Sales basis, the EM index is selling below 75% of the historic observations.
  • The previous valuation lows occurred during the Asian Financial Crisis. Since that crisis, corrective action has taken place across many Emerging Market countries in both the public and private sectors. These actions included stronger regulations, fiscal policy, and capital controls suggesting that those valuation extremes may not be revisited.
  • On a price-to-trailing-10-year-earnings basis, which smooths earnings cycles, the MSCI Emerging Market Index traded at 13x versus 27x for the S&P 500® (as of May 31, 2019).

Relative Price/Book and Relative Price/Sales

Sources: Bloomberg, MSCI

Relative Earnings Prospects

  • Relative price performance and relative earnings growth have historically followed similar paths. S&P 500® Index earnings have been outpacing MSCI Emerging Markets Index earnings since 2008, helping explain S&P 500® Index outperformance.
  • EM earnings held up relative to the S&P 500® in 2018 despite the tax-cut related earnings surge for U.S. stocks, though estimates for 2019 look less promising. Downward estimate revisions have been significant for S. Korea and Taiwan as well as more cyclical portions of the index. That said, looking further out and assuming a trade compromise is reached with China, we expect to see better relative earnings growth due to China stimulus efforts and a more dovish Fed.

Relative Earnings

Sources: Bloomberg, Bloomberg Consensus Estimates, MSCI

Trend in EM Currency

  • The MSCI EM Index is quoted in U.S. Dollars (USD). As such currency shifts between the USD and EM currencies will impact returns directly. Secondarily, EM economies can be negatively influenced when the USD rises due to the higher interest burden on debt issued in USD and potential economic slowing as local interest rates may need to rise to support local currencies. That said, a freely floating currency may act as a steam valve that over time self regulates the economic impact. The degree of economic impact differs by country and is mostly dependent upon how much debt is issued in USD and the importance of external trade with other countries.
  • Currency analysis is highly complex with short-term, medium-term, and long-term drivers on both sides of the ledger. In general the medium-term and long-term drivers favor EM currencies over the USD. Year-to-date, the MSCI EM Currency index is up slightly versus the U.S. Dollar through May 2019. An escalation in the tariff war has been offset by signs of weaker U.S. economic growth which has created expectations that the U.S. Fed may lower rates before year end.

EM Stock and Currency Indexes

Source: MSCI
*Normalization adjusts or rescales the values of different time series to a notionally common scale to allow for comparability.

Emerging Markets Middle Class Growth

  • Looking back, the Emerging Markets story has been one that has mainly surrounded the massive industrialization and urbanization of China. Looking forward, we see the story expanding beyond China as high manufacturing wages push labor intensive, low margin factory production out of China and into other emerging markets. This process allows the labor force in other emerging markets to enter the middle class. We are seeing evidence that the U.S. tariff war with China is accelerating this process with numerous countries benefiting including India, Vietnam, and Mexico.
  • As can be seen in the chart below, we are in the very early stages of this trend. Middle class growth in Emerging Markets is expected to exceed 6% annually versus less than 1% for the developed markets (Source: Brookings).
  • Brookings estimates that total middle class spending will increase from $35 trillion in 2016 to $64 trillion in 2030 with over 80% of the incremental spending coming from Emerging Markets. This implies a sum total of $174 trillion to be spent over that period by emerging middle class consumers assuming a straight line progression from a $35 trillion annual rate to $64 trillion.

Shares of Global Middle Class Consumption

Source: OECD – The Emerging Middle Class in Developing Countries

Emerging Markets Perspective

Emerging Markets equities are under represented in a global context given their relative size by other measures.

Emerging Markets as a Percent of the World

Sources: *International Monetary Fund (IMF) (2017), **MSCI (February 2019)

This commentary is for informational purposes only and should not be used or construed as an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy, or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any security. There is no guarantee that the information is complete or timely. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investing in an index is not possible. Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal and fluctuation of value. Please visit for performance information current to the most recent month-end.

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About the Author

crit thomas global market strategist

R. Crit Thomas, CFA, CAIA

Global Market Strategist
Crit is responsible for examining and evaluating economic conditions, generating insights and providing a sharpened perspective on investment strategies for enriched portfolio construction.

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