Tech and the consumer have reshaped today’s emerging markets

Today’s emerging markets (EM) are vastly different from what they were just a decade ago. What’s more, some EM-based technology companies have emerged as global market share leaders or close rivals to developed-market peers. In our view, an actively managed investment approach is best suited to navigating this landscape of tumultuous change.

Key takeaways

  • Today’s emerging markets (EM) are vastly different from what they were just a decade ago, as commodities-oriented, extractive industries have diminished in importance while companies in technology- and consumer-oriented fields have grown rapidly.
  • Expanding EM wealth has helped fuel the emergence of EM-based tech companies that have become global market share leaders or close rivals to developed-market peers.
  • In our view, an actively managed investment approach is best suited to navigating EM equities, a dynamic asset class that’s at the forefront of changes that are likely to shape our world for decades to come.

While old stereotypes can at times be shattered by rapid change, it can take a long time for the consensus view to recognize their obsolescence. Such is the case with EM economies, which to this day continue to shake off their old reputations as being dominated by commodities-oriented, extractive industries that ship materials at low cost to fuel the economic engines of wealthier developed markets. While such industries can still play an important role, modern EM economies are much more than that—they’ve diversified to encompass a much broader range of industries and higher-margin goods and services.

Some of the past decade’s biggest EM gains have come in growth industries such as e-commerce, electronic payments, cloud computing services, data centers, online education, and online healthcare diagnostics; growth has also continued apace in more established areas of EM strength, such as semiconductors and computer hardware. Broadly, these are industries where we see an abundance of EM equity opportunities among selected companies that we believe can generate profitable and sustainable growth over the long term―the steady value compounders with strong business fundamentals.

The transformation of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index

A signal of this change is evident in the composition of today’s MSCI Emerging Markets Index, which is much changed from just a decade ago. The rise of EM technology and consumer discretionary stocks has been the key catalyst for this transformation.

As recently as 2010, the combined 28.1% weighting of three sectors that are the source of much of today’s EM growth—consumer discretionary, information technology, and communication services—was just shy of the 28.3% combined share of the more traditionally EM-dominant materials and energy sectors.1 By the end of 2020, the index’s composition had been transformed, with the combined weighting of the trio of more growth-oriented sectors swelling to 47.8% and energy/materials shrinking to 12.9%.1 

EM equities: a shift from commodities-oriented sectors toward faster-growing tech and consumer sectors

MSCI Emerging Markets Index combined sector weightings (%) for energy and materials versus consumer discretionary, information technology, and communication services sectors, 2010 to 2020

Source: MSCI Inc., 2021. The MSCI Emerging Markets (EM) Index tracks the performance of publicly traded large- and mid-cap emerging-market stocks. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

The emergence of new consumer and tech leaders

What produced this dramatic shift? Among the key EM catalysts have been rapid middle-class growth and an accompanying surge in disposable income, which has created rising demand for consumer goods, particularly higher-end items. 

Emerging markets dominate wealth gains globally

Average annual percentage growth of wealth per adult in local currencies, selected countries, 2000-2019

Source: Credit Suisse Global wealth databook 2019, Credit Suisse Research Institute, October 2019.

Without these trends, we wouldn’t have seen the rapid growth of Chinese companies in industries such as e-commerce and electronic payments, for example. At the same time, many EM-based technology companies have emerged as global market share leaders or close rivals to developed-market peers, as well as being dominant players in their own domestic markets.  In Taiwan and South Korea in particular, we’ve seen companies in the semiconductor and consumer electronics industries vault into the ranks of global brand leaders in recent years.

An example of EM tech- and consumer-oriented companies’ growth can be seen in the presence of three EM-based technology companies among the top five constituents of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index as of March 2021; two consumer discretionary companies occupy the other two slots in the top five.2 Consumer discretionary also boasts the index’s sixth and ninth positions. 

Over a decade, the EM share of the worlds’ top consumer brands has grown nearly sixfold

Countries' shares by value (%) of the world's top 25 brands, 2011 to 2021

Source: Global 500 Rankings, Brand Finance, 2021. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.

Out of a pandemic, new opportunities emerge

One thing that has surprised us is that the pandemic has accelerated long-term secular trends; healthcare is one example. The need for a coronavirus vaccine has led to advancements in a matter of months that normally would have taken years to accomplish. For example, an existing vaccine for malaria has historically been only 25% effective. However, with the use of new technologies developed as a result of the pandemic, a new malaria vaccine has been shown to be over 70% effective.3 We expect that this breakthrough will have profound effects, particularly in Africa, where hundreds of thousands of children die of malaria every year.

This pandemic has led to huge leaps forward in technology. While people often are very resistant to change, they tend to respond fantastically at every level when they’re forced to do something and there’s no other alternative. They just require that initial catalyst for change. One of the things that we love about emerging markets is that there are fewer barriers to change, which enables them to adopt the latest technology available with little to no resistance.

For example, in China, we’ve seen huge leaps forward with respect to providing public health over the internet and through online consultations. We’re also seeing the use of artificial intelligence to better work out what symptoms somebody may have or what the right treatment may be. Due to COVID-19, there has been a rapid rollout of online medical services, which has had a positive impact on people in rural areas who didn’t previously have good access to healthcare.

A new EM equity landscape opens new opportunities

This is a completely different environment than when we began our EM investing careers decades ago. Since then, the growth of the middle class and its magnified buying power have reshaped EM, and the pandemic’s emergence in early 2020 became a further catalyst for change. In the face of a devastating global health crisis, a select group of firms within specific industries has shown remarkable resilience and even managed to accelerate growth.

Amid supply chain disruptions and other operational challenges, many of these standout companies became beneficiaries of work- and shop-from-home trends, and the strong growth that they experienced before the pandemic in some instances accelerated further. This growth has been most notable in several North Asian markets that we continue to believe will shape the next decade of EM opportunity.

A shift in the storyline

Of course, these sorts of long-term trends rarely play out in an uninterrupted fashion, and that’s been the case in late 2020 and early 2021. The relative performance of some of these companies retreated as investors rotated into a broader grouping of more traditional cyclical stocks and sectors. Many of these segments are expected to benefit more significantly over the short term as economies gradually reopen, with vaccination campaigns and the drive toward herd immunity suggesting a march toward normalization.

Many investors viewed these stocks and sectors as undervalued, given the growth premium that had driven up the prices of many new economy stocks through much of 2020. While there has been a broad recent trend toward economic normalization, it’s important to remember that this trend, too, is unlikely to be synchronous; across developed markets and EM, the success of many countries’ vaccination programs has been uneven, and the emergence of new COVID-19 variants and case surges has produced renewed lockdowns across several important economies. We believe such pandemic-driven unpredictability is likely to persist for the short term. 

The bigger picture for new economy stocks

Taking a longer view, we believe that a substantial share of EM earnings growth will be driven by stocks in industries that are beneficiaries of the work- and shop-from-home shift, such as semiconductors, technology hardware, e-commerce, and media and entertainment. In our view, well-managed new economy EM companies with strong business models will continue to provide fertile long-term investment opportunities. However, our experiences as active investors show us that changes in the makeup of the EM equity universe are to be expected, and given this dynamic nature of EM, a focus on longer-term secular growth drivers is best suited for the asset class.

1 Sector and Factor Evolution in Emerging Markets, MSCI Inc., 2021. 2 MSCI Emerging Markets Fact Sheet, MSCI Inc., February 2021. 

A widespread health crisis such as a global pandemic could cause substantial market volatility, exchange-trading suspensions and closures, and affect portfolio performance. For example, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has resulted in significant disruptions to global business activity. The impact of a health crisis and other epidemics and pandemics that may arise in the future, could affect the global economy in ways that cannot necessarily be foreseen at the present time. A health crisis may exacerbate other preexisting political, social, and economic risks. Any such impact could adversely affect the portfolio’s performance, resulting in losses to your investment.

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Kathryn Langridge

Kathryn Langridge, 

Senior Portfolio Manager, Emerging Markets Equity

Manulife Investment Management

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Philip Ehrmann

Philip Ehrmann, 

Former Senior Portfolio Manager, Emerging Markets Equity

Manulife Investment Management

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