Investing in Frontier Markets

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) used the term “frontier markets” for the first time in June 1996, when it announced that it would start publishing data on 14 frontier markets as part of its Emerging Markets Database. At that time, the IFC defined frontier markets as those that were investable, but less developed in terms of size, liquidity, and accessibility than emerging markets. Today, frontier markets remain an esoteric market segment, one that is relatively small in terms of market capitalization, less liquid, subject to various country-specific risks and high levels of volatility. Frontier markets, by definition, do not benefit from the same level of political stability, financial infrastructure, legal and regulatory framework as do developed markets.

The market segment has been gaining attention in recent years as investors have started to think about frontier markets as the emerging markets of tomorrow. In “Frontier Markets Panorama 2017”, Citigroup referenced EPFR’s finding that assets it tracks that are invested in frontier markets have grown from nearly $10 billion in 2008 to close to $20 billion in 20171. While assets doubled over this nine-year time frame, they remain modest relative to the overall size of the equity market. The Bloomberg World Exchange Market Capitalization Index estimates the global equity market was close to $86 trillion as of January 31, 2018. Investors have been attracted to frontier markets by the potential for strong growth, favorable demographics, as well as the diversification benefits.

Economic growth in frontier markets is broad-based and projected to be greater than that of emerging and developed markets (Exhibit 1). Frontier markets also offer a compelling demographic story. According to the International Monetary Fund these countries represented approximately 11% of the world population in 2017. These economies benefit from a young, growing population, with the working age population not expected to peak until 20352. Many frontier countries are undergoing a move towards urbanization, which will be a positive driver for economic growth. Finally, frontier markets offer opportunities from under penetration. Credit penetration, for example, remains low across most of the market segment. Many basic services (mobile telephony, internet, basic household appliances, and motor vehicles) also remain under penetrated, although it varies greatly among countries.

Exhibit 1: Projected GDP growth (2017-2021)

With that said, many frontier market countries might grow their nominal GDP at a higher pace than developed or emerging markets but this growth might not fully translate into financial market growth, as many companies in key sectors are not publicly traded, such as state-owned enterprises or multinational companies. While frontier markets have benefited from loose monetary policy over the last decade, global tightening could lead to macroeconomic instability.

Currency can have a large effect on investment returns. Frontier market currencies are often linked to the performance of volatile commodities, such as oil and coffee. Currency risk is very important in frontier markets as hedging instruments on many for these currencies are illiquid, expensive, or may not exist.

Other concerns include weaker institutions and fragile government systems that can result in high political risk and regulatory uncertainty. Government actions in frontier markets such as regime changes, war, ability and desire to repay debt, and the expropriation of privately held assets can significantly impact return on capital. Military coups, terrorist attacks and the ability to develop regulatory infrastructure are other risks.

For investors in Frontier Markets, a focus on corporate governance can help avoid pitfalls. Although the ease of accessibility to transparent and reliable information, as well as the depth of financial and governance disclosures can vary widely, companies in Frontier Markets tend to have lower standards than those of developed and emerging countries. While traditional asset classes are covered by a broad range of sell-side analysts, this is not yet the case for frontier markets. Market inaccessibility and low liquidity result in a lower level of participation from foreign investors, which in turn translates to lower coverage by international sell-side analysts. For active managers that engage company management directly, this can provide a competitive edge. But it also means less availability of data and insight.

Corruption is also a problem in many frontier countries. Exhibit 2 shows the Corruption Perceptions Index Scores, as published by Transparency International, an international non-governmental organization that combats global corruption. Countries are rated on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 indicating rampant corruption.

Investing In frontier markets.

The previously mentioned IFC database, which first published data on frontier markets, was acquired by Standard & Poor’s at the end of 1999. Almost a decade later, S&P launched the S&P Select Frontier Index in October 2007, which was closely followed by the MSCI Frontier Markets Index in December 2007. After S&P launched the S&P Frontier Broad Market Index (“BMI”) in November 2008, FTSE completed the trio of major global indices in September 2014 when it launched the FTSE Frontier Index Series.

Corruption Perceptions Index for the most important countries in developed, emerging and frontier markets

Index providers such as S&P, MSCI and FTSE each have their own country classification methodologies regarding what constitutes developed, emerging or frontier markets. While the thresholds and specifics may differ for each of the methodologies, there is some basic common criteria across the three. Focused on market capitalization, market liquidity, economic health and market regulations, the methodologies applied can lead to diverse sets of underlying constituents, in terms of both countries and companies. The MSCI Frontier Markets Index tends to be the index most frequently referenced by active managers.

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Inquiries or comments concerning this article may be addressed to:
Geraldine Miniaou, CFA
Senior Research Analyst
Pavilion Advisory Group Ltd.