by Jeff Reeves
Commentary: Foreign investments to consider now
ROCKVILLE, Md. (MarketWatch) — To hear some investors tell it, the boom days of China are a thing of the past. The 2002 to 2007 surge was great — but as the saying goes, what has China done for you lately?
The benchmark indexes have left many investors flat. The SPDR S&P China ETF (NYSE: GXC - News) has underperformed the major indexes slightly over the last 12 months, up about 10% compared with 13% for the S&P 500 (NYSE: ^GSPC - News). More recently, in the last six months the China SPDR is up a mere 5% vs. 15% for the S&P 500 since October. Then there are the iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index ETF (NYSE: FXI - News) and the Claymore/AlphaShares China Small Cap ETF (NYSE: HAO - News). Both are up less than 6% in the last 12 months, about half the performance of the broader market.
Similar arguments can be made against other emerging markets the landmark iShares MSCI Brazil Index ETF (NYSE: EWZ - News), with nearly $13 billion in assets, is up a mere 4% in the last year. And the diversified iShares MSCI BRIC Index Fund (NYSE: BKF - News) is up only 7% over the last 12 months.
When you look at numbers like this — alongside headlines of China real estate bubbles and India food inflation and the rest — the BRIC seems a bad bet. Right?
Wrong. The only thing proven by the underperformance of these funds is that Wall Street is a far more complicated place these days than simply picking a country and putting your portfolio on cruise control. In the boom times, investors could simply throw a dart at China and watch the cash roll in. But now, it takes a more to pick a winner.
I have never been to any of the BRIC nations and don't pretend to be an emerging markets insider. All investments require homework, and foreign investments require even more. But based on big-picture trends and specific facts for each stock, here are some picks you may want to consider in the BRIC right now:
Brazil: Banco Bradesco
It's no surprise why the iShares Brazil ETF has underperformed — over 35% of its holdings are vested in some form of Petrobras (NYSE: PBR - News) or Vale (NYSE: VALE - News) stock. Both the oil giant and metals giant have underperformed the market lately, dragging down this fund. However, another one of this ETF's major holdings, Banco Bradesco (NYSE: BBD - News), has fared quite well. The commercial bank is up over 20% in the last year on strong growth in lending and a growing middle class frequenting the bank more. Toss in a 2.6% dividend — not bad considering the state of financial sector dividends in the states — and you've got a decent BRIC buy.
Brazilian beverage giant AmBev (NYSE: ABV - News) is an interesting growth opportunity right now. Amid a 5-for-1 split just after Christmas, the company topped earnings expectations for the first time in several quarters thanks to 13% sales growth overall — 10% growth in its home country of Brazil. It was part of a fourth-quarter report that boasted nearly 50% earnings growth year-over-year on the quarter and nearly 40% for fiscal 2010 over 2009. As an emerging middle class develops more expensive tastes for beer, soda and other beverages, AmBev could be a great long-term play in Brazil. The stock is down slightly in 2011, but adjusted for the slip ABV shares are up about 65% in the last 12 months.
A very savvy colleague of mine, Ivan Martchev, said to me the other day "as Russia goes, so does Gazprom (NYSE: OGZPY - News)." The energy giant is the largest Russian company by market cap, and is benefitting doubly from the focus on crude oil and the focus on Russia by institutional investors. The stock is cruising at a new 52-week high — and with a stunning 17% of worldwide natural gas production and a nearly 10% contribution of total Russian GDP, you can understand why this stock has seen a jump of over 50% in the last six months. Though a pink sheet stock and thus not subject to some of the stricter standards of a major exchange, give Gazprom a look.
Russia: Russia Capped Index ETF
Though it may seem like a contradiction for me to bang up broad-based funds and then pitch a Russia ETF, note that the iShares MSCI Russia Capped Index Fund (NYSE: ERUS - News) is essentially a heaping of Gazprom with some other Russian stocks on the side. With 25% of assets behind OGZPY stock and another 11% behind Lukoil(NYSE: LUKOY - News), you're essentially making a slightly less aggressive play on the Russian energy scene. But fair warning — ERUS launched in November and trades only about 50,000 units a day.
Sterlite Industries (NYSE: SLT - News) is one of India's largest mining companies, with interests and operations in aluminum, copper, zinc and lead. While the stock has admittedly underperformed the market recently, the company is on track to grow earnings by over 35% this fiscal year — and its January earnings report showed profits up 60% on higher base metal prices.
Inflation seems like a foregone conclusion in commodities like energy, food and metals. Though things have been rocky in the near term — India investments had a heck of a January and have yet to recover — this uptrend coupled with projections of 50% sales growth in the next fiscal year add up to a decent long-term buy in India.
China: CNOOC Ltd.
Like Gazprom, China National Offshore Oil Company (NYSE: CEO - News) is a massive oil company in one of the largest energy producing regions of the world and enjoys favored status with the government. It's hard to bet against a play like that. With crude oil prices steadily on the rise to boot, CEO seems a great China play. It has been so far — shares are up over 10% since Jan. 1, and are up over 50% in the last 12 months. CEO is just a shade off a new 52-week high, but that could be one of many marked by this oil giant in the next several months.
I know, everyone always rolls their eyes at folks who call Baidu Inc. (NASDAQ: BIDU - News) "China's Google." But now that Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG - News) has all but given up on China, there's really no other way to put it. The Internet giant is growing at a breakneck pace. Revenue almost doubled from 2009 to 2010, and growth could top 70% this fiscal year. Is it any wonder shares have doubled in the last 12 months? China's heavy hand with the Web all but ensures that western players like Google will have trouble getting into the market — or at least trouble stomaching the rules. In a vacuum, Baidu is sure to thrive.
As of this writing, Reeves did not own a position in any of the stocks or funds named here.