My friend Rostislav, who would know, tells me that in Russian there is no equivalent for the word “privacy.” That’s because, in Russian culture, privacy, as we understand it, is a foreign concept. In schools, for example, children’s grades are posted publicly, and it is not impolite to ask someone’s salary.
Why is this relevant? As a stock market investor, if you have, or are considering, international exposure in your portfolio, you’ll want to be aware of these cultural differences. That’s because these differences impact the ways in which other countries run their economies and how they regulate — or do not regulate — their investment markets.
This is especially true for emerging markets countries, which includes Russia and other developing economies such as Brazil, India, China and Indonesia. If you choose to allocate a portion of your portfolio to these countries, it is important to understand the ways in which differing cultural norms might impact your investment results.
These differences fall into several categories. Insider trading rules, for example, vary widely around the world, and even where it is prohibited, many countries simply don’t prioritize its enforcement. In addition, rules governing public companies differ, especially when it comes to requirements for financial audits. Legal systems differ as well, resulting in varying levels of contract enforcement, copyright protection and overall shareholder protections. In the most extreme cases, governments have forcibly taken over private companies. Last year, for example, the Indonesian government succeeding in forcing the American company Freeport-McMoRan to turn over its crown jewel: majority ownership in the world’s largest gold mine, which is located in Indonesia. From the Indonesian government’s perspective, they were simply doing what they thought was best for their people, but it certainly wasn’t good for Freeport shareholders.
It is not my intention to pass judgment on other countries’ norms. Indeed, sometimes other countries’ approaches have benefited investors. In Japan, for example, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which Americans tended to view as heavy-handed, helped drive enviable industrial growth in the years following World War II. And, investments in emerging markets stocks have been profitable over time. Still, the data do clearly indicate that, on average, investing in emerging markets has carried greater risk than domestic investments. In 2008, for example, when U.S. markets declined 37 percent, Russia’s stock market dropped 67 percent. This pattern repeats frequently.
Here’s how I would balance risk and reward when making emerging markets investments:
First, and perhaps most importantly, keep your investments modest. While I do believe it’s worthwhile to invest in emerging markets, I would do so carefully, to manage risk.
Second, diversify broadly. Don’t place bets on individual regions or countries or companies. To help dampen volatility, I’d opt for a fund that includes all of the emerging markets countries. To see what I mean, consider 2008, when Russia’s market sank 67 percent. In that year, emerging markets countries as a group held up much better — down “just” 42 percent. You wouldn’t have been happy, but you might have been much less unhappy. Outside the U.S., diversification is really critical.
Third, be especially careful of the myth that robust economic growth automatically translates to robust stock market returns. This may seem like a logical assumption, but according to a 2005 study by Elroy Dimson and colleagues, there is no conclusive correlation between economic growth and investment returns. In fact, some studies have found a slightly negative correlation. Over the past ten years, for example, the stock market in fast-growing China hasn’t done much better than the market in France, where economic growth hovers near zero.
Finally, stick to stocks; don’t buy bonds from emerging markets companies or countries. In my view, the fixed income portion of your portfolio is there just to provide stability, not to make money. While emerging markets bonds may offer higher interest rates than domestic bonds, they also carry greater risk of loss. According to one analysis, between 1999 and 2015, twelve different emerging markets governments defaulted on their bonds seventeen times — about once a year. Yes, they pay higher yields, but I wouldn’t be tempted.