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Is It Safe to Get Back into Frontier Market ETFs?

BlackRock thinks so, having launched its first frontier market fund now that the financial crisis that wrecked earlier launches seems to be in the rearview mirror.

  • Rosalyn Retkwa

Is the timing finally right for ETFs that invest in the “frontier markets” — those markets a tier below the emerging markets? There’s clearly a case to be made for their potential investment returns. Yet timing here as elsewhere can be everything: Several frontier markets ETFs that were launched in late 2008 ran aground on the financial crisis not long thereafter. Still, two of those have survived — The Guggenheim Frontier Markets ETF (FRN), from Guggenheim Investments of New York City, and PowerShares MENA Frontier Countries Portfolio (PMNA), from Invesco PowerShares of Wheaton, Illinois. And now the 800-pound gorilla has walked into the room. In mid-September, BlackRock launched its iShares MSCI Frontier 100 Index Fund (FM). The fund will invest in equities from 20 widely dispersed and very different frontier markets, from Nigeria to the United Arab Emirates to Vietnam to Argentina.

Actually, BlackRock got started with investing in the frontier markets back in 2008 as well, but in a different way, notes Daniel Gamba, BlackRock managing director and head of iShares Americas Institutional Business. Since then, it’s been investing in the frontier markets for institutional clients via private accounts, and that business has grown to about $530 million in assets under management, he says. “We felt the time was right to bring an ETF, given the institutional experience we have with the asset class,” he says.

The three ETFs are very different from one another, based as they are on different indexes and countries. But they do have one very big common denominator: They’re all heavily invested in the financial or banking category. Guggenheim’s fund has a 34.75 percent weighting in financials, while PowerShares’ has 72.86 percent, and iShares, 56.39 percent.

That’s because the banking sector usually develops first in these markets and has publicly traded shares available for investment, notes Eric Dutram, ETF analyst at Zacks Investment Research in Chicago. “How many stocks are trading in Nigeria?” he says. “Even the emerging markets ETFs tend to be concentrated in banking and oil,” he notes, “so it’s not that much of a surprise that it would be similar in the frontier markets.” The frontier market ETFs also “get a really weird mix of undeveloped and really rich countries — Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Qatar — it’s just a weird space to be in,” adds Dutram.

But it can be a profitable space to be in as well, says William Belden, the head of product management at Guggenheim Investments. Through June 30 of this year, FRN, with $148 million in assets, was up 7.61 percent, with a three-year average return of 10.33 percent.

Guggenheim doesn’t invest in frontier markets stocks that are listed on their home countries’ exchanges. Rather, it invests strictly in American Depository Receipts (ADRs) listed on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, and Global Depository Receipts (GDRs) listed on the London Stock Exchange, he notes, since they’re more liquid.

PowerShares’ PMNA fund, however, hasn’t done well at all. It has just $16.6 million in assets under management, and it’s not hard to see why since its own product literature shows that $10,000 invested at inception would now be worth less than half, or $4,699. Ouch.

As of June 30, its return so far this year is just 2.67 percent, so it’s even lagging well behind its corresponding index, the Nasdaq OMX Middle East North Africa index, which registered a 6 percent gain during the same period of time. (The ETF has a stated goal of investing at least 90 percent of its assets in the securities, ADRs and GDRs in that index).

“From an operational standpoint, there are just some markets that are more difficult to replicate, this being one of them,” says Ed McRedmond, senior vice president of portfolio strategies at Invesco Powershares. Even though the ETF hasn’t done well so far, there are no plans to close it, he says. “Our mindset at PowerShares in general is to give it some time if it offers investors a unique exposure,” he says.