BRIC house shaky, as developed nations suddenly a mighty good bet

Stocks in U.S., Europe outpacing ermerging market equities for first time since 1998; 'skies are bluer'

Feb 22, 2011 @ 7:43 am

Stocks in developed countries are rising the most since 1998 while emerging markets slump, a sign the U.S. is returning to its role as the engine of world growth aided by a recovery in Europe.

The MSCI World Index of equities in 24 countries rose 6.1 percent for 2011 through yesterday, the best annual start in 13 years, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index of shares in nations such as Brazil, Russia, India and China lost 2.7 percent. A Morgan Stanley gauge of stocks such as Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Deere & Co. meant to rally when inflation expectations match Federal Reserve targets added 46 percent since August, almost double the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.

While emerging-market equities beat developed countries every year except 2008 in the past decade, they're falling now as Brazil, Russia, India and China battle inflation. Thornburg Investment Management Inc. and Barclays Plc expect bigger gains from developed-market equities after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to prevent the breakup of the euro and the Fed began buying $600 billion in Treasuries to spur growth.

“You've got more willingness to take risk with equities in developed markets,” said Santa Fe, New Mexico-based William Fries, who runs the $26.7 billion Thornburg International Value Fund that beat 92 percent of peers since 2006. “At the beginning of the year, the world kind of turned upside down. There wasn't a great deal of money flowing into developed markets over the last couple of years, and that's starting to change.”

Asian Financial Crisis

The last time the developed-nation index won by this much to start a year was 1995. It went on to gain 47 percent in the next three years, and the emerging-nation gauge fell 4.2 percent through the end of 1997 after the Asian financial crisis.

While the MSCI World trailed the gauge of emerging nations by an average of 16 percentage points annually since 2001, it held up better during the financial crisis, losing 42 percent versus 54 percent for emerging markets in 2008.

Intensifying violence in Libya, holder of Africa's largest oil reserves, pushed the MSCI Emerging Markets down 1.7 percent today to 1,101.36 as of 5:20 p.m. in Hong Kong. The MSCI World slipped 0.8 percent. Standard & Poor's 500 Index futures fell 1.6 percent from last week.

Investors are betting that the U.S., with gross domestic product that's almost three times greater than China and Japan, will drive global economic growth. U.S. imports of $203.5 billion in December were the most in two years. The Conference Board's index of U.S. consumer confidence climbed to an almost three-year peak in January, and the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago Inc. said businesses expanded in January at the fastest pace since July 1988.

Doubled Since 2009

The S&P 500, the benchmark measure of U.S. shares, closed at a 32-month high of 1,343.01 on Feb. 18. It has almost doubled since March 2009 and risen three straight weeks as corporate profits surpassed Wall Street estimates for eight straight quarters, sending the S&P 500's valuation to an eight-month high of 16 times reported income.

Last week, the MSCI World rose 1.6 percent. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index of 21 countries gained 2.8 percent.

Greece, Italy and Spain are leading developed markets higher with gains exceeding 9.6 percent this year. Stocks in the nations, among Europe's most indebted, rebounded from the worst performances in 2010 amid growing confidence France and Germany will keep the region's currency intact. The euro has risen versus 13 of 16 major counterparts this year, including Brazil's real and South Africa's rand, after trailing 15 in 2010.

U.S. Mutual Funds

Investors are pouring money into equity mutual funds that buy shares in the U.S., the world's largest stock market, with shares valued at $16.6 trillion. Domestic equity funds had net inflows of $4.92 billion during the week that ended Feb. 9, more than any time in almost two years, according to data from Investment Company Institute, a Washington-based trade group. Non-U.S. stocks attracted $928 million.

“In an ideal portfolio, we'd pick our biggest overweight in the developed world,” Manpreet Gill, a Singapore-based strategist at Barclays Wealth, which oversees about $225 billion, said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Feb. 15. “That's where we're seeing a lot of the economic surprise.”

Developed nations, recovering from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, have kept interest rates low, with the Fed holding its target near zero since December 2008.

Interest-rate derivatives show traders anticipate U.S. economic growth won't spark runaway price gains. Forward contracts on 10-year interest-rate swaps that allow investors to lock in fixed-rate payments for 10 years a decade from now have risen to 5.38 percent, or where they were before the financial crisis began in 2008.

German Reunification

While countries sharing the euro have exceeded the European Central Bank's inflation limit, policy makers have kept their benchmark rate at a record low of 1 percent for almost two years as they apply one monetary policy to 17 nations. Germany's economy grew 3.6 percent last year, the most since reunification two decades ago. Greece contracted 4.5 percent and Spain's economy declined 0.2 percent.

Attempts by emerging-market central banks to battle inflation are holding back their equities, Gill said. Brazil's central bank lifted its benchmark overnight rate by 50 basis points, or 0.5 percentage point, to 11.25 percent on Jan. 19.

India raised rates to a two-year high on Jan. 25. China has ordered lenders twice this year to set aside more money as reserves. Russia increased banks' reserve requirements for the first time since 2009 on Jan. 31 to stem the fastest inflation in a year.

Dangerous Levels

The World Bank said Feb. 15 that global food prices have surged to dangerous levels, pushing 44 million more people into extreme poverty since June. The 2.9 billion people in Brazil, Russia, India and China spend about 19 percent of their income on groceries, compared with 6 percent in the U.S., according to data compiled by London-based Euromonitor International. Corn futures surged 94 percent in the past year through yesterday, and wheat jumped 70 percent after drought and floods damaged crops from Russia to Argentina.

While emerging-market policy makers are attempting to restrain growth, they are helping the long-term health of their nations, according to Jason Hsu, chief investment officer of Research Affiliates LLC, which oversees $61 billion in Newport Beach, California.

“Emerging-market central banks have been proactive, much more conservative in their willingness to push the curve of prosperity to the future,” he said. “These are responsible policies as long as it's not done to an extreme. In the long run, it could provide a better environment for capital investment.”

Inflation Disparity

The inflation disparity between developed and emerging markets is clearer in the stock market than anywhere else. The Morgan Stanley Inflation Basket of 77 U.S. companies has risen 24 percent since Oct. 15, when the New York-based bank created the index of stocks, including raw-material and energy companies, that are poised to benefit from higher prices. The S&P 500 gained 14 percent since then.

Producers of oil, natural gas and coal in the MSCI Emerging Markets advanced 2 percent this year through yesterday. That compares with the 11 percent rally in MSCI World Energy Index.

Archer Daniels Midland, the world's largest grain processor, climbed 25 percent this year. The Decatur, Illinois-based company that got 65 percent of fiscal 2010 revenue from the U.S. and Germany beat analysts' profit estimates on Feb. 1 after record grain exports.

Deere in the Spotlight

Deere, the world's largest farm-equipment maker that gets 65 percent of sales from the U.S. and Canada, raised its 2011 forecast last week as higher crop prices boosted North American sales of tractors and combines. Shares of the Moline, Illinois- based company have risen 14 percent this year.

Chaoda Modern Agriculture (Holdings) Ltd., a Chinese vegetable grower that's based in Hong Kong, is down 14 percent in 2011. Jakarta-based PT Astra Agro Lestari, Indonesia's biggest listed plantation company, has fallen 16 percent this year even after palm oil prices reached an almost three year- high on Feb. 10.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., Japan's largest carmakers, advanced at least 14 percent in 2011. Both companies are based in Tokyo. The Dow Jones Transportation Average, a measure of U.S. truckers and shippers that are considered proxies for the economy, reached a 32-month high on Feb. 16 and gained 3.7 percent this year.

Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., India's biggest sport-utility vehicle maker, slumped 17 percent this year after oil prices reached a 27-month high of $92.84 a barrel. The Mumbai-based company said in its Feb. 9 earnings release that it's concerned about higher commodity prices and further rate increases.

Options Bets

The cost of using options to protect against losses in developing-nation stocks is near a two-year high compared with contracts on U.S. stocks. Implied volatility, the key gauge of prices, for three-month options on the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index exchange-traded fund is 1.5 times the level for options on the SPDR S&P 500 ETF and was 1.7 times higher on Feb. 9, the highest level since November 2008.

“The skies are bluer in the developed markets,” said John Praveen, Newark, New Jersey-based chief investment strategist at Prudential International Investments Advisers, a unit of Prudential Financial Inc., which oversees $750 billion. “You have low inflation, low interest rates and growth picking up.”

--Bloomberg News--

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