Emerging Market Stocks are (a Little) Cheap

13 March 2019
Emerging market stocks start 2019 at a discount to historical valuations, but risks abound too. EM bonds look like the surer bet

Emerging market assets have certainly been beaten up over the last 12 months. The Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets exchange-traded fund (ticker: VWO) has lost 17%, the iShares JP Morgan Emerging Markets BondETF (EMB) 9%. Does that make them a bargain now? The short answer is: sort of, though external risks remain higher than usual, and bonds, with a few exceptions, look better than stocks.


Emerging-market stocks in aggregate are trading at a 27% discount to developed-market peers on a price-to-forward-earnings basis. That’s deeper than the 10-year average of 22%, says Jorge Mariscal, chief investment officer for emerging markets at UBSAsset Management. Emerging-market companies are also growing faster, with projected 6% profit expansion in 2019 against 4.5% for U.S. markets. That’s enough to expect “a bit of outperformance,” he thinks.

Not so, says Lori Heinel, deputy CIO for State Street Global Advisors. She sees the valuation advantage more than offset by higher risks in emerging markets—from smoldering trade wars to more old-school industrial companies that are vulnerable to an expected slowdown in global growth. State Street prefers U.S. stocks for 2019. “EM is cheap for a reason,” Heinel concludes.

There are pockets within emerging markets that offer more compelling value than the broad index. Financials, for instance, are trading at their lowest price-to-book values in 20 years, says Ernest Yeung, manager of the T. Rowe Price Emerging Markets Value Stock Fund (PRIJX). The emerging markets rally of 2016-17 was led by tech stocks, while banks languished thanks to overcapacity among their traditional borrowers. “EM companies are starting to spend on [capital expenditures] again, which will mean new loan growth for the banks,” he predicts. Seven of his fund’s top 10 holdings are financials led by South Africa’s Absa Group (AGRPY), Agricultural Bank of China (1288. Hong Kong), and Banco Bradesco (BBD) in Brazil.


UBS’ Mariscal, hunting from a country perspective, favors South Korea, where multiples have dropped close to post-2008 levels. “This is a very cyclical market that could lead the way with a better outlook for tech globally,” he says.

Investors find firmer consensus on the lure of emerging-market bond prices. “I prefer bonds over stocks” in emerging markets, says Jan Dehn head of research at emerging-market specialist Ashmore Group. The standard benchmark for sovereign Eurobonds, average yield spread over U.S Treasuries currently stands around 400 basis points (4 percentage points) against a historical average of 350. (Higher yields mean lower prices.)

Reversion to the mean, plus an average underlying interest rate of 7%, would spell a 10% return for the coming year, figures Eric Baurmeister, head of emerging markets debt at Morgan Stanley . “That’s a buy signal, though not one you’re pounding on the table about,” he says.

Profit or loss from domestically issued emerging-market bonds depends largely on local currencies, which mostly sank last year. But that spells future opportunity with the U.S. dollar now 20% overvalued and the Federal Reserve signaling a hiatus in the rate increases that drove that ascendancy, Dehn argues. State Street’s Heinel agrees enough to be “trading around” downtrodden credits in the likes of Mexico, Russia, and Turkey.

The risk is that the Fed tilts hawkish again. If the 10-year Treasury note “goes back above three in the next six months, it’s hard to see much spread compression for us,” says Blaise Antin, head of emerging markets sovereign research at TCW.