Dateline: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Economic development happens in fits and bursts as technological capacity and social development allow for new production potential. If you manage to invest at the start of such a financial wave, a small amount of money can make an extraordinary return in a relatively short amount of time.
Today I will show you how to invest in frontier markets and benefit from the economic development of less industrialized economies to earn rates of return far in excess of what you would otherwise expect in your local markets.
Chances are you are reading this guide in a well-developed country that industrialized long ago and, quite frankly, has its best days behind it.
All around you are the signs, the buildings, and the history of the businessmen that made it happen in the first place. This was an era when everything was possible, and if you had a good idea and a bit of luck, you could become a titan of business.
Nowadays, good luck defeating the multi-billion multinational corporations that compete for consumer dollars. Precisely because of this pressure, small firms have opted to niche down to ever smaller demographics as the big fish have completely taken over the sea.
So, rather than compete for the meager profits you can still make in the West, why not go somewhere else entirely, somewhere where the big fish have not arrived and you could become one?
To show you how, we will divide today’s guide into the following sections to breakdown the information you will need to understand to make savvy frontier and emerging market investments:
INTERNATIONAL RATES OF RETURN
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s wind it back and discuss markets and rates of return.
Whenever you talk to an investor or financial planner, they will usually talk about “the market” in an almost reverential tone. They will explain how they’re attempting to beat the market or even the futility of trying to beat it at all.
At its core, a market is the aggregation of all economic activity in a specific sector. What people fail to understand is that the definition can be quite hazy and arbitrary.
For example, when people talk about “the market” and its returns, they are typically referring to the returns of an index like the S&P-500, essentially a list of the 500 largest companies listed on the US stock exchange.
If you look under the hood though, it becomes a bit more problematic:
Firstly, as it’s only 500 companies, it only accounts for 80% of the equities value in the US; meaning that if you buy a share of the index supposedly representing “the market” you won’t actually own shares in businesses ready to make a meteoric rise, you will only own big and established companies which already have large market penetration and reduced growth potential.
Secondly, most of the 500 companies barely have an effect on the index as a whole. Given that the value assigned by the index to a specific company is based on their market cap (the cost of buying all shares), a handful of companies move the whole index.
The top ten company shares represent roughly 25.8% of the index, and the top five produce 18.6%. A similar trend continues with each successive company where they represent a smaller fraction the farther down the list they are at.
Put bluntly, what financial experts call “the market returns”, are really just the returns of oversized companies that affect the movement of the economy.
Imagine you take an arbitrary list of stocks with selection criteria you decided upon randomly. Over the years, people assign a lot of importance to this collection of stocks, far more than anyone would if it didn’t have this history behind it. This register becomes so famous that every investment decision on the planet is indirectly based on the rate of return of this list of stocks in mind.
So much so that rivals start forming with the sole purpose of beating this index. But the returns of this file are so respected that if they don’t beat it, then they’re a laughingstock. Hence, in secret, a significant portion of the assets that they hold are composed of the list of the stocks, or individual holdings of the more important stocks.
Imagine no further, as this is what has happened with index funds and then the actively managed mutual funds that try to beat them. They’re often so terrified of not meeting the returns of this collection of stocks that they become very conservative and even just buy the index they’re supposed to be trying to beat.
So, when financial planners tell you how a 7-8% return is as good as it gets, perhaps they should add an asterisk clarifying that this is when you invest in the largest companies in the US economy and average it out over decades.
In reality, there are many “markets” within a national economy – there’s a real estate market, a bond market, a loan market, a currency market, a stock market, etc. Each one has its own speed, accessibility, size, volatility, and most importantly, profitability.
It’s completely reductive to just arbitrarily say that because stocks are the most accessible asset, consequently we should apply the same fundamentals and expectations to every other market even within the same geographic area.
The same applies to every other country which has its own fundamentals, culture, demographics, future, etc. It’s a bit like looking out of the window, seeing a red car, and assuming that all cars are red because the readily available example was red.
It’s extrapolating US modes of thinking and trying to apply them to the rest of the world.
But this is a highly uninformed way of thinking that could cost you lucrative investments overseas. For example, there has not been a single year in the last decade when growth in Cambodia hasn’t been at least 7-8%. It has even enjoyed double figures; in fact, it’s just been one big growth chart.
Obviously, there are challenges, but if you know what you’re doing or you have someone who can do it for you, you can enjoy uncorrelated growth even while the rest of the world suffers. Investing in a frontier or emerging market may actually protect some of your investments in a way that a developed market can’t.
But first, what are frontier and emerging markets?
3 Investment Markets: Comparing Economies[embedded content] [embedded content]
If I’ve convinced you so far that it’s worth looking at other markets to beat the returns of what most of the investing world consider unbeatable, then we should analyze the different types of economies out there.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of economies:
UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, Western Europe, etc. – The opportunities in these types of places have come and gone. Demographics aren’t particularly strong and there’s often population decline.
They can be fine on a case by case basis, but overall, you shouldn’t expect the same consistent growth as elsewhere. Think of trying to squeeze the last bits of juice off of an orange – is the juice worth the squeeze?
BRIC countries, Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico, Argentina, Turkey, etc. – These are newly industrialized countries, where manufacturing often represents a large part of the economic activity. They tend to have strong demographics (including low average age and stable reproduction rates), though there are some exceptions such as China and Thailand, which will show population decline in 10-15 years.
Emerging markets are a hybrid of developed and frontier markets where you can still find the presence of multinational companies combined with the economic growth that comes with increasing development.
Given that the primary consumer base of emerging countries is made up of more developed states – which buy their goods, services, and resources – their success can be closely tied to the success of the global economy, as they’re very reliant on global investment.
Cambodia, Myanmar, a good portion of Subsaharan Africa, parts of Eastern Europe, etc. – These economies have yet to industrialize or fully open themselves to outside investments. Because of this, their performance is often uncorrelated with the trends of the global economy, so much so that you won’t even find a McDonald’s.
A recession won’t affect it as it exists in an isolated bubble where there’s hardly any influence from the outside world. They’re much more dependent on internal growth factors and demographics. They’re developing because the middle class is rising and people from the countryside are going to urban areas.
Eventually, multinational corporations will arrive in these markets and then they will go up a notch, though they may need to solve some political tensions in the interim.
Perhaps the easiest way to analyze where a country’s economy falls between these three categories is to take a look at their McDonald’s restaurants. This is not a joke, in fact, it’s an easy shorthand that economists use to gauge the economic development of an area.
The reason is simple, whether there is a McDonald’s at all shows that there is foreign capital invested in the country, and if so, how much. Then, the restaurants themselves have fairly standardized menus.
As such, economists have developed “The Big Mac Index” as an informal way of measuring and comparing the purchasing power parity (PPP) between two economies. In this way, you can see how the local economy fares on the international scale (whether its currency is overvalued, how efficient the economy is, etc.).
5 Benefits of Frontier Market Investment
Frontier markets are a step above the least developing countries that are essentially a mess both politically and economically, but their markets are still too small, illiquid, or risky to be widely considered safe for most investors.
So, why would anyone consider investing in what some people would call the riskiest of markets?
Well, here are five good reasons it might be right for you, and this is especially good advice for younger entrepreneurs or people who want a greater return on their capital and are willing to take a bit more risk.
1. Long-Term Growth
The biggest reason you should consider frontier and emerging market investment is the potential for long-term growth.
Think back to your school years and remember what it was like when a classmate forgot their homework. There was usually a mad dash to try to copy the smart kid’s answers before the teacher made it to the classroom.
While the nerdy kid probably spent hours poring through the textbook and trying to come up with the answers, his classmate copied the whole thing in under five minutes just in time for the teacher to arrive.
Why is this? Well, coming up with new discoveries, insights, and more requires a lot of upfront work and effort before you even know what you should do. It’s much easier to copy what others have done before you, as the only real cost is the materials and time to replicate it – there is no research or experimentation phase.
The same can be said about industrialized nations vs. emerging and frontier markets.
The hardest work is done, the technology and systems necessary to run it have already been discovered and optimized. The only thing frontier and emerging economies need to do is imitate it.
As such, developed nations have the role of the nerdy kid as they try (and often fail) to invent new technologies and ideas to improve their circumstances. Every marginal improvement costs a fortune of R&D.
Emerging and frontier markets, on the other hand, have a pre-written script set before them that they can use to achieve long-term growth.[embedded content] [embedded content]
Frontier markets are often called “pre-emerging” markets and for good reason. Imagine being able to get in on the ground floor in an emerging market like Thailand — well, they say Phnom Penh in Cambodia is the Bangkok of thirty years ago.
Developers are coming in and buying up shops, houses, apartments, and small stores all around Phnom Penh right now. These are people who want to build a new mall, skyscraper, or other big project and need bulk access to land.
Any investment made has massive returns because the economy is so new.
To illustrate, imagine adding a single brick to an almost finished home. That single brick would represent a development rate of 0.1% of the entire structure, at most. Compare that to just having started building a structure and only having a single brick in place – if you add another brick, that’s automatically a 100% growth rate.
That’s the key difference between developed economies vs. frontier markets.
Again, look at Bangkok and compare the markets from the eighties to the more developed markets now. Then, imagine how many times people have made their money back.
Now, there’s no guarantee that will happen to you; you also have to have the right investment strategy. But Cambodia and other frontier markets could still offer excellent long-term growth of your capital. And over 10, 20, or 30 years, the potential there is huge.
So, reason one: long-term growth.
2. Greater Potential for Yield
The same thing that makes frontier markets an excellent investment opportunity is the very reason fewer people actually invest in them: namely, the risk. However, this gives those of us with the appetite for a little risk another good reason to invest — less competition and a greater potential for yield.
I have a friend with a Southeast Asian property fund who is savvy about buying properties in blue-chip areas. As a conservative baseline, his property fund is projected to return 10-12% on rental yields annually, unleveraged.
People in his situation can make two or three times the actual value of the property. Compare that to the returns you get investing somewhere like the UK, the United States, Australia, or, heaven forbid, Switzerland, where you might be looking at low single-digit returns.
In a frontier market like Cambodia, you can expect to reap a good double-digit yield while you are waiting for that long-term growth to materialize.
Frontier and emerging market investment offers diversification in a number of different ways.
As we have already discussed, you can secure returns in frontier markets that are uncorrelated to market fluctuations in developed and even some emerging markets.
Take the 2008 financial crisis or the Asian financial crisis as examples; those didn’t affect Cambodia in the way they shocked more developed and conventional markets. And even during the current COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown, Southeast Asia is set to outperform.
Not only do frontier markets offer diversification from the woes of more developed and interconnected economies, they also provide opportunities for currency diversification.
Many frontier markets have their own currencies, and some have performed incredibly well against the dollar in the past five years. In fact, in Armenia, you could have made a 10% return by depositing money in a local bank account.
In addition, frontier markets offer a different type of environment than you have probably invested in before. So, not only do they give you a totally different growth profile, they also allow you to diversify across market types.
By diversifying your portfolio from your average retirement account or 401(k), you can further balance the risk and reward profile of your overall portfolio.[embedded content] [embedded content]
4. Higher Probability of Success
When it comes to establishing an investment or setting up a new business, competition in traditional markets can be tough. On the other hand, there is less competition in frontier and emerging markets, which means you have a greater probability of success.
Even concepts as simple as an English-language school have proven to be good opportunities for fresh-off-the-boat entrepreneurs. While it could be done elsewhere, I wouldn’t be too thrilled with renting expensive retail space to open a second-language school in the US, or even perhaps China. But it is a viable opportunity in a frontier market.
In the West, smart businesses have become all about the niche. With so much supply in the market, it can be a death sentence to compete with huge, established players.
In developing markets, however, opportunity is everywhere if you can offer affordable products for a market with increasing buying power. This includes finding new ways to improve upon current lackluster offerings.
While there are the usual technical indicators for each country highlighting areas in need of improvement, actually being on the ground is an important indicator as well.
Find ways to deliver widely used, large market products at good price points and you can have an incrementally higher probability of success than you would in the West.
Think of the long list of potential opportunities when you realize that the penchant for western-style affluent living in frontier and emerging markets is largely untapped.
That, combined with a more simplistic process to many business practices should ignite your passion for finding new products and services to market if you answer the call of these rapidly increasing economies.
5. Lower Entry Points
No matter where you are in the world, it’s pretty easy to start a website these days. But you can open a physical brick-and-mortar business for a heck of lot less in places like Phnom Penh than you could in any city that has a developed market.
Just look at this story of an expat who became a millionaire selling sweets on the streets of Cambodia.
If you want real estate in Cambodia – good city center real estate – there are still plenty of great deals to be had. If you’re looking at doing the same thing in Los Angeles or London, you can forget it. Going after property in those places means you’ll end up getting pushed out to areas that won’t bring you the slightest chance of success.
Of course, affordable urban real estate isn’t available in all frontier market countries – there are places in Africa where properties in the central business districts are grossly overpriced, for example. But certainly, in Cambodia, a high-quality piece of real estate isn’t going to cost you the earth.
But the lower entry costs don’t just come in the form of low prices.
While entrepreneurship always involves risks, it’s interesting to note the differences between highly developed and developing markets.
Take opening a bakery as an example.
In California, you’d have to jump through hoops for several three-letter state and local agencies, take hours of bakery classes, buy special equipment certified by the right people, and hope you didn’t violate any of the innumerable ordinances, laws, and regulations governing everything from food serving to hiring to advertising.
In a frontier market, you rent a space, hang your shingle, and start baking. It’s a lot easier and a lot less frustrating.
Of course, if you live in a western country, a bakery probably isn’t first on your list of businesses to start. The return on your time invested just isn’t that great. And the barrier to entry is so low that supply exceeds demand, leading many businesses to fail.
In rapidly growing developing markets, however, demand often outpaces supply, creating an enviable position for business owners on the ground.
As long as you respect the culture and understand how it works outside of the normal business culture you’re used to, setting up a business in a frontier market can be very inexpensive and extremely straightforward.
HOW TO IDENTIFY HIGH POTENTIAL MARKETS
If you’re looking for where to invest your money to add to your foreign portfolio investment, here’s some investment advice. While every story of extraordinary development is unique in its own way, there are commonalities to be found in most of the examples.
Here are the most compelling factors to look out for:
Countries with low per-capita GDP where both institutions and the workforce are undergoing a transformation.
High Population Growth: This leads to an ample working-age population, which can give a powerful boost to GDP under the right conditions.
Health: Good health is essential for growth and productivity. Data on life expectancy can give you a general idea of the overall health of a population. Still, don’t completely write off countries with lower life expectancy. Improvements to health and sanitation facilities can greatly improve living conditions and lead to economic growth.
Urbanization: Larger cities can increase productivity in frontier economies because they encourage economies of scale in production and distribution. Companies also benefit from knowledge transfers and a larger, more diverse labor pool.
Ease of Doing Business: This is an obvious factor you should take into consideration. The World Bank’s Doing Business Index is a great place to find information on the business atmosphere in each country, as well as the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.
It is important to take these and other factors into account when choosing where to invest. Investing in a country simply because it is a frontier market can be a very foolish move. There are countries with all the fundamentals in place, you just have to do your homework to find them.
THE CHALLENGES IN FRONTIER MARKETS
Some frontier markets are closed off to investors. Even if they’re not completely closed off, they often make things difficult for investors. Myanmar is a perfect example of this. Though it is a promising frontier market, anyone smaller than Coca Cola will find it impossible to enter the country.
Once you find a country that is open to investors, you will find a new set of challenges. As a byproduct of their disconnection to the rest of the world, frontier markets are hard to invest in because of their poor financial infrastructure.
Plus, contracts can quickly become worthless. This is one reason why I have always focused on creating a strong network of locals who know the ins-and-outs of deal-making in their specific market. Local associates substantially decrease your risk of being “ripped off” and increase your chances of finding the best deals.
My friend who I helped to start a property fund to invest in Cambodian real estate has an excellent track record. Though it’s very open to foreigners, Cambodia presents some of the typical challenges you’ll find in frontier markets.
My friend began his business riding around on his motorbike looking for deals that weren’t available publicly. He learned the Khmer language for “for sale” and would write down the phone numbers from the signs he would find. Then, he hired an assistant to call the phone numbers.
Once he found a property, payment was made in cash and fingerprints were taken at the local town hall (which is like a hut) to seal the deal.
More often than not, frontier markets will require this level of hands-on investing. The infrastructure is not built out as much to sell to you. You can’t just do deals online or over the phone.
This is a good approach even in more developed emerging markets. We have a member on our team who speaks fluent Turkish who has been able to find incredible deals in Turkey’s real estate market that you could never find on the online sites that cater to foreigners.
Finally, if you are going to do business in foreign countries, it’s important to understand the government’s hot buttons. I’ve lost track of how many different countries I’ve gotten the tip to stay under the radar.
Running a quiet business that grows over time is fine. Running a crazy, in-your-face business … not so good.
Just because there are far fewer rules in frontier markets than in your bankrupt western country doesn’t mean that there aren’t any rules at all. In order to navigate your way through those rules, you have to do your research, put in the time on the ground, and preferably involve a local in your business.
THE BEST FRONTIER MARKET INVESTMENTS
If these challenges don’t phase you — or perhaps they even excite you — then frontier markets may be your thing. For the average person, an emerging market probably makes more sense and will be more convenient. Nevertheless, if you are interested in frontier markets, I’ve outlined three basic investment strategies that you can use:
1. BUY REAL ESTATE
As I’ve already illustrated, investing in real estate on your own can be a little bit tricky. Still, places like Cambodia offer some of the biggest opportunities I’ve seen.
One of the reasons I helped my friend set up his real estate fund is that it costs more to rent a nice apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia than it does in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Even though Malaysia is the most developed country in the region (besides Singapore), there is so much competition there that it drives down the prices.
There’s no competition in Cambodia.
That is why converting properties in Cambodia to western-style apartments makes a lot of sense. Just as I predicted more than half a decade ago when I invested in Cambodian real estate, it’s already paying off and the places are still high for rent.
For any frontier market, I would suggest you go and live or at least spend time in the country before investing. Most frontier markets aren’t really places where you go on vacation and pick up a property. If you’re looking for something less hands-on, I would recommend investing in a real estate fund or joining one of our in-country Real Estate Masterclasses.
If you’re interested in learning more about investing in real estate overseas, these other articles are a great place to start:
2. START YOUR OWN BUSINESS
One of the bigger opportunities I see in frontier markets is to start a business on the ground. There is huge potential in these markets precisely because they have very few of the services common to the western world.
My friend’s father saw this potential back in the early 90s after the fall of communism. As a pilot, this native of Poland took every chance he had to buy computers and other merchandise on flights to places like Singapore. He knew that as Poland developed, demand would outpace supply and anyone would buy anything.
In that situation, the mentality was that “he who has the goods is in control.” And that is still the mindset in Poland and much of Eastern Europe today.
Compare that to the US where the mentality is “the customer is always right” and “I’m the one buying so you should bow down to me.” It’s not like that in these countries.
You have to be in the thick of it, but that’s how easy it is in some of these places.
Opportunities for basic businesses and online services in a frontier market are huge. It’s not just about real estate; e-commerce and simple service industries all have a greater chance of succeeding in a market where competition is almost nonexistent.
Not only that, but without running the risk of an economic downturn every seven or eight years – like we experience in the West – more businesses are likely to be able to ride out periods of global financial crisis.
If you feel up to the task of starting a business on the ground in an emerging or frontier market, check out these articles to get a feel for the opportunities available around the world:
3. FUND SOMEONE ELSE’S BUSINESS
You don’t have to start a business on the ground to benefit from the incredible growth in frontier markets if you can provide venture capital. There is plenty of room for improvement in these countries, starting with basic infrastructure such as transportation, banking, and telecommunications.
Many companies have already established themselves in these markets and there is always a need for investment. Again, if you are looking for something less hands-on, there are investment funds that will allow you to invest in these businesses without much hassle.
However, if you are more like me and want control over the kinds of investments you make and the potential return they will give, here’s my fail-proof strategy:
When I go to a new country, I start by hiring a good lawyer. I overpay him. We then go and he introduces me to people. He helps me figure out how to place job ads and does stuff that even a lawyer usually wouldn’t do. He becomes my point man.
Now, he might hire an assistant and together they go out and bring in people with properties and companies. They ferret out the bad ideas and then I talk to the best of the best. It’s as simple as that.
There are even opportunities to purchase great companies at steep discounts in many frontier economies during times of general market weakness. For example, the recent dive of oil prices has many emerging markets under strain. Buying now can provide even lower entry points than you would usually find.
WHY EMERGING MARKETS ETFS ARE A BAD IDEA[embedded content] [embedded content]
Whenever I talk with people about investing in emerging or frontier markets, I will often get a knowing smile from people who say they’re already invested in them. After a bit of prodding about the subject, I soon find that they purchased an emerging market index fund, ETF, or Emerging Market Bond ETF.
Over the last decade, these emerging markets ETF have become very trendy, and reputable institutions like Charles Shwab, Fidelity, Vanguard, and others all have their own funds. These have gotten so large that they sometimes have over $1 billion in assets under management (AUM).
The issue though is that they don’t often invest in their namesake.
If you look at the holdings per country, you might notice that a sizable (if not a majority) are in places like Qatar, Dubai, South Korea, and Taiwan, none of which are emerging markets – quite the contrary, they’re among the most developed economies out there and haven’t been remotely emerging markets for decades.
Just as an example, if you look at the holdings of the Fidelity iShares emerging markets ETF, the largest of its type, you will see that by their own admission 26.64% of their AUM are in developed markets all over the globe.
The reason this is done is practical:
- Firstly, to normalize earnings, kind of like you would add milk to an overly strong coffee. By their nature, emerging and frontier markets can be quite volatile, so if you want to convince investors to join, you lure them with a picture of stability.
- Secondly, these funds have gotten so large that if they invested in companies in frontier and emerging markets, by themselves they could warp the fabric of the local economy just with their presence. So, they have to be very careful putting the funds in, as even placing the order to purchase stocks can affect the stock market as a whole.
Are you really getting the exposure that you’re looking for? Don’t get me wrong, ETFs have done rather well in the past, but it’s a bit like someone going somewhere with your money and buying something you didn’t ask for.
BE WARY OF THE FOREIGNER TAX AND SCAMS
No matter the developing economy that you pick, chances are you are a stranger there. You will likely not be able to speak the language or understand the culture and politics, either.
To add to complications, the vast majority of people will see the foreigner who wants to invest as a big, walking dollar sign.
This means that you have to be on your guard, more so than you would in your own country.
Some scammers – often disguised as real estate agents – will masquerade as your friends and tell you how they can take the burden of real estate negotiation off you. We’ve addressed real estate scams before, but suffice it to say that if you are doing business with someone who primarily only does business with foreigners, it’s usually not a good sign.
As we’ve already discussed, I like to hire a local lawyer to help me find opportunities and navigate through the language barrier and bureaucracy.
Plan on overpaying a little bit, but it will make a world of difference, especially if you’re working with an English language person working on the ground. By overpaying a little for quality help, you won’t get ripped off and the extra spent won’t lead to the end of the world.
This impartial third party tends to weed out many of the obvious scammers.
WHO SHOULD INVEST IN EMERGING MARKETS?
Frontier market investment isn’t for everyone. In my books, there are two types of people who are suited to this type of high-risk investing: someone with a high amount of risk capital or a young person who has nothing to lose.
For the average person looking to invest in a frontier market — someone who’s not really that adventurous and who’s a bit freaked out about the risks and the chances of getting ripped off — you should probably just have someone handle it for you, to be honest. My recommendation: look into local REIT funds.
If you’re like me, just do it. But most people don’t even know how to get out of Atlanta. Figure out what level of risk (and adventure) you’re willing to take on before deciding to invest in frontier and emerging markets.
There are many different frontier and emerging markets, and each one has a unique profile. From Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Namibia in Africa to Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Latvia in Europe to Asia and the Middle East, there’s no shortage of places to choose from.
Obviously, there’s lots of homework to be done on any specific country that you’re looking at, but this guide will at least allow you to consider investing in a frontier or emerging market, diversifying your portfolio, and potentially earning higher returns than you could back home.
If you decide that frontier and/or emerging market investment is your cup of tea and you want some help in getting started, you can reach out to our team. We’d be glad to help.