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The Definitive ASEAN ETF Guide

July 3, 2012 7:50 am
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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, is more than just another catchy investment acronym. ASEAN encompasses an alluring mix of 10 nations including one developed market (Singapore), several familiar emerging economies, a frontier market and some markets that are downright hard for U.S. investors to access.

The 10 ASEAN member states are as follows: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Some ASEAN constituents have already found their way into other well-known acronyms. For example, Indonesia and Vietnam are members of CIVETS while the Philippines and Thailand have found a home in the underrated CAPPT acronym.

At is core, the ASEAN region is the epitome of a profit/peril conundrum. Even amid a slowing global economy, the ASEAN member states offer some of the best GDP growth rates in the world. The downside is several of these countries are next to impossible for U.S. investors to gain direct exposure to or are home to red flags such as corruption and under-developed banking and legal systems.

The rewards are there to be had with ASEAN, but use this guide to invest in the region the right way.

Now 26-months-old, the Global X FTSE ASEAN 40 ETF remains an under-appreciated ETF. Not only is it one of the few noteworthy multi-country ETFs tracking Asian nations that does not feature exposure to China, Taiwan or South Korea, the fund is the only ETF devoted exclusively to ASEAN member states.

That said, ASEA is a play on just five ASEAN countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, but the fund’s weight to the Philippines is less than one percent. ASEA tempers its emerging markets flare with a 37.2 percent weight to Singapore, a developed market. One critique: It would be nice to see ASEA raise its allocations to Thailand and the Philippines, which combine for just over 12 percent of the fund’s total weight.

iShares MSCI Singapore Index Fund (NYSE: EWS)
As one of the few developed markets in a region littered with emerging economies, Singapore is often viewed as the beacon of stability in the ASEAN lineup. EWS features an allocation of 47 percent to financials, which might scare off some investors in this market environment. However, Singapore is one of the financial centers of the world.

The city-state not only receives more financial foreign investment than any other major financial center in the world, it receives more than New York, London, Frankfurt and Switzerland….combined, according to AlphaVN.com.

That is a telling anecdote and one that underscores the notion that Singapore is a viable developed market alternative to the U.S. and Europe. Also consider the Shares MSCI Singapore Small Cap Index Fund (NYSE: EWSS), which debuted in January.

Market Vectors Indonesia ETF (NYSE: IDX)

For all of 2012, Indonesia has been an emerging markets laggard and that much is highlighted by the fact that IDX, the largest of three Indonesia ETFs, is down nearly 3.7 percent year-to-date while the Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (NYSE: VWO) is higher by 4.6 percent.

That glum performance aside, IDX has been one of the best performing ETFs since the March 2009 market bottom and it pays to remember that Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy. Indonesia’s economy grew at 6.3 percent in the first quarter. While that may be the country’s most sluggish pace in six quarters, foreign direct investment surged 30 percent, Reuters reported.

Investors have a tendency to forget that Indonesia is a young democracy and that it is still moving toward enhanced transparency and increased adaptation of free market ideals. The long-term outlook is strong. Also consider the iShares MSCI Indonesia Investable Market Index Fund (NYSE: EIDO) and the newly minted Market Vectors Indonesia Small-Cap ETF (NYSE: IDXJ).

iShares MSCI Malaysia Index Fund (NYSE: EWM)
The iShares MSCI Malaysia Index Fund has not been as exciting as some other ETFs tracking ASEAN nations, but it has also outperformed IDX as well as the major ETFs tracking non-ASEAN nations such as China, South Korea and Taiwan.

Driven by strong domestic demand, Malaysia expects solid GDP growth in the second half of this year and it is worth noting country is a marginal oil exporter. It is also worth noting that Malaysia has been the top IPO destination in Asia this year.

That trend probably will not last year, but it does highlight the strength in Malaysian equities relative to larger Asian markets this year.

iShares MSCI Philippines Investable Market Index Fund (NYSE: EPHE)
The iShares MSCI Philippines Investable Market Index Fund was one of the top-performing non-leveraged ETFs in the first half of the year. That is not surprising for those investors that have been savvy enough to get acquainted with the Philippines over the past year.

EPHE trades at a premium to the broader emerging markets universe, but the fund is worthy of a valuation that some may consider lofty. There are real catalysts that make EPHE and the Philippines worth embracing. A current debt-to-GDP ratio of around 50%. Controlled inflation relative to many other emerging markets. Of course, there is the World Bank GDP growth forecast of 4.2% this year and 5% in 2013.

Investors also cannot ignore the fact that that Philippines improving economic and political situations put the country in prime position for an upgrade to its sovereign credit ratings.

The Philippines also provides an indirect way for investors to gain exposure, albeit small for the moment, to Cambodia. For long-term investors, the good news/bad news scenario is that the Philippines is still heavily impoverished with one of the lowest per capita GDP ratios in the world. That is bad news on the surface, but the statistic also implies that with the benefit of a sound fiscal situation, the Philippine government can invest in avenues to reduce poverty.

iShares MSCI Thailand Investable Market Index Fund (NYSE: THD)
THD has been one of the best-performing ETFs since the March 2009 market bottom and despite some political issues of its own in 2010, Thailand is now one of the more politically stable countries in Southeast Asia. The country shares borders with Cambodia and Myanmar, meaning investors can grab some access (again, small and indirect) to those markets.

Broadly speaking, there is a lot to like with Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy behind Indonesia. GDP growth is expected to be in the neighborhood of 5.2 percent to 6.2 percent this year and inflation is tolerable.

However, there is a bear case regarding Thailand. A senior economist at the Thailand Development Research Institute said on Monday the populist policies of the Pheu Thai Party could set Thailand on a to a Greece-like collapse in “no less than 10 years.

That is a bold proclamation and one that may be colored by the economist possibly supporting ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai party. For now, Thailand looks nothing like Greece, but despite a solid economic track record as of late and immense potential going forward, Thailand does need to address rising unemployment among its young people.

Market Vectors Vietnam ETF (NYSE: VNM)
The Market Vectors Vietnam ETF was one of the best-performing non-leveraged ETFs during the first quarter, but the fund gave back some of the gains with a 5.8 percent second-quarter decline. That performance speaks to the fact Vietnam is a frontier market, implying risk here is higher than with a traditional emerging market.

VNM’s recent woes also underscore slowing economic growth at the hand’s slack bank lending, the byproduct of woefully high inflation seen in recent years. Still, Vietnam’s economy grew 4.7 percent in the second quarter and inflation has been tamed to the point where the central bank has lowered the refinancing and discount rates in an effort to spur bolster domestic growth.

The bull case for VNM and exists in the form of compelling valuations for Vietnamese equities and the expectation that those stocks will surge through 2013.

Vietnam is a small equity market with a total market capitalization of around $40 billion. Vietnamese banks are flush with excess cash and foreign direct investment has ample room to grow, indicating VNM’s best days may be forthcoming.

Investors should note there are other multi-country ETFs on the market that offer exposure to some ASEAN nations. Those funds include the EGShares Low Volatility Emerging Markets Dividend ETF (NYSE: HILO), the WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend Fund (NYSE: DGS), the WisdomTree Emerging Markets Equity Income Fund (NYSE: DEM), the EGShares Industrials GEMS ETF (NYSE: IGEM), the SPDR S&P Small Cap Emerging Asia Pacific ETF (NYSE: GMFS), the SPDR S&P Emerging Asia Pacific ETF (NYSE: GMF), the iShares Emerging Markets Dividend Index Fund (NYSE: DVYE) and the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Minimum Volatility Index Fund (NYSE: EEMV), among others.

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