Brave the last frontiers

Rachel Fixsen on whether to invest in Novomoskovskbytkhim

Watching your money ride on the investment roller-coaster of emerging markets seems a lot more exciting than holding, say, European government bonds.

Instead of wondering if monetary union will ever happen, you find yourself hooked on the story of a small South-east Asian country whose president has just been arrested. Russia's fight against organised crime takes on a new meaning.

But you can pay a high price if you do invest in emerging markets - the term for developing capitalist economies such as eastern Europe, Latin America and India. Your investment literature will be more colourful, but you may well lose a lot of money if you put it in the world's more exotic corners.

Global emerging markets funds have certainly given a bad deal lately, leading some experts to suggest that their attractiveness may take some time to recover. A thousand pounds invested three years ago has wasted away to pounds 804.68, according to an average for this breed of fund from MoneyFacts, the specialist financial data provider. However, holding out for five years would have given you a respectable pounds 1,936.79.

Real pioneers can risk all and ride on out to the Wild East. The last thing investment trusts such as First Russian Frontiers Trust and the East German Investment Trust will offer you is a guaranteed quick profit - but you could strike lucky. The East German Investment Trust bravely ventures behind the ruins of the Berlin Wall, buying up shares of unquoted paper producers, broadcasters and property businesses. But that's where the fun stops.

Your pounds 1,000 investment would have dwindled to pounds 699.90 over the past six months, and the longer you'd had it invested, the more pitiful it would now be. After five years, you'd have a miserable pounds 377.98, says MoneyFacts.

Irresistibly-named First Russian Frontiers is bound to appeal to the adventurous. This investment trust was launched in 1994 and has assets of over pounds 100m. Investments range from Russia's largest detergent maker - boasting the catchy name Novomoskovskbytkhim - to an Albanian oil extractor.

This trust's shares have seen spectacular returns in the past 12 months, with a pounds 1,000 investment surging to pounds 1,924.24 in this period. In its February report, First Russian Frontiers said the Russian market had continued its frenetic upward trend. But rumours concerning the fate of Prime Minister Chernomyrdin had introduced uncertainty, it added.

You should only put in very small amounts into any emerging markets investment, says Peter Smith, regional director of independent financial advisers Hill Martin. A unit trust purchase plan, which lets your money trickle in, can take the volatility out, he says.

"The growth in these areas is often several percentage points higher than in the developed world," says Fiona Price of Fiona Price & Co, London- based independent financial advisers. "But you could easily lose significant amounts of money. Not just 5 or 10 per cent, but even more," she warns.

Global emerging markets are the best way to invest in this sector, Mr Smith adds. In the past, Hill Martin has used the Schroder Global Emerging Markets unit trust, the Templeton Emerging Markets investment trust and Stewart Ivory Emerging Markets unit trust as recommendations, he says. Schroder's fund is the biggest of its kind in terms of assets, with pounds 266m invested in a Brazilian regional phone company, a Taiwanese life insurer, and a host of others. Gartmore's 10-year-old Emerging Markets Fund, which has shares in firms ranging from Korea's electronics company Samsung to a Peruvian brewery, has also had a disappointing three years.

The idea that emerging markets give good capital returns has proved somewhat illusory over the past few years, admits Philip Ehrmann, head of global emerging markets at Gartmore.

A burst of investor enthusiasm for emerging markets around 1993 left many funds overvalued. "It has taken time for the fundamentals to catch up," adds Mr Ehrmann. These over-high valuations back then, coupled with rallying stock markets in the US and other important markets, have left emerging markets funds in the shadows for the past few years.

Morgan Stanley's Emerging Markets Free Index, which allows for restrictions on foreign investors, fell 25 per cent over the three years to the end of 1996.

But things are picking up and there is scope for a contained revival this year, as long as US interest rates don't shoot through the roof, Mr Ehrmann, says. "Emerging markets should be blessed with good news," he says.

Liquidity can be a problem with marginal markets funds. If the underlying shares are so obscure that it takes time to find a buyer, then investors might in theory have to wait before being able to sell units. Mr Ehrmann says this is highly unlikely to happen at Gartmore, which applies strict capitalisation screens to the companies it invests in.

Be warned, however, before you liven up your investments with emerging markets. "People enjoy the theory but they don't enjoy it when they've got it because they don't make any money," says Mr Smith.

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