Just 14 years ago Wall Street fell in love with the BRICs, the tidy acronym for four major emerging economies that, to many, looked like sure winners.

Today, after heady runs and abrupt reversals, most of the BRICs -- in fact, most developing nations -- look like big-time losers.

The history of emerging markets is a history of booms and busts, but the immediate future may hold something more prosaic: malaise. Investors today confront what could turn out to be a lost decade of returns, with four or five more meager years ahead.

“These are very much the lean years after the bonanza decade,” said Harvard Kennedy School economist Carmen Reinhart, one of the world’s top experts on financial crises and developing economies.

Fed Policy

Not long ago the BRICs -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- were celebrated as engines of global growth. Now Brazil and Russia face deep recessions brought on by the collapse in global commodities, while China is slowing and struggling to prop up its fast-sinking stock market.

The prospect of higher U.S. interest rates only adds to the gloom. Currencies from the South African rand to the Malaysian ringgit fell anew on Wednesday amid worries the U.S. Federal Reserve might move as early as September.

To Ruchir Sharma, the turnabout suggests the outsize investment returns of the early 2000s -- the MSCI Emerging Markets Index nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2010 -- now look like an anomaly.

“Very few emerging markets historically have ever been able to make it to the developed countries,” said Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management Inc. “This is a return to normalcy.”

Currency Rout