To get ahead, you need a conservative strategy, scouring the world for both deep value and explosive growth.
When investors think of Asian emerging markets, oftentimes only China comes to mind. I’m not a China expert, but my research paints a picture of a China very much at odds with conventional wisdom.
Since 2000, China’s total debt has grown from $1 trillion to $27 trillion (up 2,600 percent) while its GDP has gone from $1 trillion to $9 trillion. Local government debt has jumped 67 percent since 2010. Meanwhile, real estate prices are up 700 percent since 2000 and industries from cement to aluminum are experiencing excess capacity of between 30% and 40%.
China’s historical advantage of having low manufacturing labor costs has evaporated. Mexico’s manufacturing wages are now lower. Bangladesh’s wages are about half that of China.
And China’s vaunted move to consumer-led economic growth is not going all that well, either. Unilever, the consumer multinational and maker of products such as Dove soap and Lipton tea, just reported that sales in China have plunged 20 plunged in two consecutive quarters.
While China struggles, Southeast Asia and frontier Asian countries are zooming ahead.
I call these markets “motorcycle markets” because they have many more motorcycles than cars on the road and some don’t even yet have a McDonald’s restaurant. While emerging markets have struggled, frontier emerging markets are surging. This has brought stocks in the MSCI Frontier Markets Index to a value of $119 billion.
These frontier markets offer investors a combination of great value, huge upside and unique challenges. As giants like China run into growing pains, higher costs and negative returns, frontier markets are up—propelled by a bit more political stability and easy access to modern communications, technology and capital. The simple smart phone has connected every citizen to the global economy as well as MIT’s free online education.
My case for you to leapfrog over emerging markets to the new frontier markets is simple and powerful. Frontier countries are far behind developed countries such as Japan and the U.S. and they’re playing catch up with countries such as Thailand, South Korea and China, but they are catching up fast. Imagine a chance to invest right now in the China of 1980, when its wages were at rock bottom levels and it exported in a year what it now does every day.
According to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), the base salaries for workers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen are $395 and $295 per month, respectively. In Hanoi the figure is just $145. The Chinese middle-class is demanding higher wages, bringing an end to the era when companies could enter China and find an unlimited workforce willing to work for less than $100 per month. This is forcing companies like Microsoft to recalibrate, and Vietnam is waiting with open arms.