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The Next Bubble?

Where to find the next market meltdown? Perhaps half a world away. Some fund managers believe that emerging market stocks, which have provided great returns (39.5% annually since 2002), are perilously overvalued.

No question, countries like China, India, Brazil and Russia are growing much faster than the developed world and are likely to do so for a while–with GDP growth rates of 5% to 11% a year, compared with 3% for the U.S. But there are worrisome signs that the run-up is fueled, in part, by just the sort of speculative money that typically presages a collapse.

Foreign direct investment is still cascading into these countries: $213 billion this year, the Institute of International Finance estimates. Total assets under management for emerging markets hedge funds jumped eightfold in the four years through September to $269.5 billion, estimates Lipper Tass Asset Flows Report. Even that lowballs the true amount by $50 billion or so, reckons Lipper senior analyst Ferenc Sanderson, given that global and other hedge funds are also dumping money into these regions.

Mutual fund firms, never ones to pass up an investing frenzy, have been diving in as well. Five years ago there was but one fund newly set up to target the sector; this year there are 16, says Morningstar. Individuals doubled their mutual fund bets in emerging markets last year to $11 billion, says AMG Data Services; as of Nov. 20 they totaled $14.2 billion for 2007.

“This is strongly reminiscent of the flows into technology in late 1999 and early 2000,” worries Robert Adler, AMG's president. Of concern, too, is how much of the recent years' stellar returns have been the result of the expansion of price multiples rather than of earnings. Since bottoming out six years ago, the price/earnings ratio of Morgan Stanley 's emerging market stock index has climbed 70% to 18.5, just ahead of the S&P 500's multiple.

But look a little closer. The price/sales ratio in emerging market stocks is roughly 120% higher than the same measure in developed economies. That means, if P/Es are about the same, profit margins in emerging markets are twice again as high as in developed ones. The obvious risk here is that profit margins in emerging markets will decline to global average levels as new competition surfaces, says Robert Arnott, chairman of fund manager Research Affiliates. “These stocks have soared beyond reason,” he says. Among the most vulnerable: stocks in China, the Czech Republic, Colombia and Morocco.

What could cause a collapse? A market bust and recession in the U.S., which together were enough to trip up emerging markets six years ago. Or credit tightening in China, political instability in Turkey or inflation in Brazil. Any of these might prompt Western investors to repatriate their cash. There's nothing like an overseas crisis to make a little turmoil at home seem rather tame.

Source: Forbes

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