Asia's Frontier Beckons

By Aaron Levitt | April 18, 2012 AAA

As growth has slowed across the developed world, investors have taken a shine to emerging markets (EM), especially those in Asia. However, when investors tend to think about putting money to work on the continent, both China and India are at the top of their' lists. After all, the duo makes up half of the ubiquitous acronym BRIC. Favorable demographics, improving infrastructure and rising incomes are the hallmarks for investment in the two nations. The First Trust ISE Chindia Index ETF (ARCA:FNI) can even be used to directly hone in on just these two countries. Nonetheless, these growth stories have been clearly documented and well underway. For those investors looking for more, the prospects of several of their neighbors could be better.

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Turning the Spotlight on Asia's Unknowns
While nations like Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore have become EM portfolio staples, places like Cambodia and Vietnam continue to be ignored by mainstream investors. However, Asia's frontier could be the more exciting bet for long-term portfolios. It is in these markets that investors have the opportunities to find the Chinas of tomorrow.

There are plenty of reasons to be bullish on these "emerging" emerging nations. Like many of their bigger brothers, Asia's frontier features strong demographic trends. More than 40% of the world's 14 to 25 year-olds are located in frontier market nations. This young and working age advantage will help drive future growth as well as consumerism. Some of that growth will come from manufacturing. As wages in traditional manufacturing hubs like China and Taiwan continue to rise, nations like Bangladesh are quickly becoming the go-to place for low-cost production. Factories that produce textiles and even higher tech goods, like pharmaceuticals and semiconductors, have sprouted up in the frontier.

SEE: Forging Frontier Markets

Asia's frontier markets are also fertile, with various natural resources. These include various untapped mineral reserves, traditional and renewable energy potential, as well as vast agricultural opportunities. Mongolia alone is said to house some of the richest reserves of copper, gold, coal and critical rare earth metals. As the world continues to use natural resources at break-neck speeds, the demand for frontier markets goods will only increase, strengthening their position in the global economy.

Finally, some of the main risks with investing in Asia's frontier are being diminished. Local exchanges are gaining volume and accounting is becoming more transparent in most frontier markets. Various political risks are subsiding as well. For example, Myanmar recently took steps towards becoming a democracy and various developed market nations have begun easing economic sanctions against the Asian country.

SEE: Broadening The Borders Of Your Portfolio

Gaining Access
Like the name implies, Asia's frontier is well, the frontier. Gaining access isn't as easy as buying shares of IBM (NYSE:IBM) and the bulk of the frontier-themed funds like the Guggenheim Frontier Markets (ARCA:FRN) are heavily domiciled in the Middle East. However, for investors wanting exposure, there are some opportunities. One broad play could be the Global X FTSE ASEAN 40 ETF (ARCA:ASEA). The trade bloc features access to well-known Asian growth stories as well as countries like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Recent talks among member states included further trade and monetary integration, as well as floating the idea of a single currency.

Vietnam is quickly emerging as Asia's lowest-cost manufacturing hub, as wages are half as much as China's. Adding in its young population of roughly 87 million and its vast commodity wealth, and the Southeast Asian nation seems like a portfolio win. The Market Vectors Vietnam ETF (ARCA:VNM) tracks 35 different firms domiciled in the nation, and has returned about 37% year-to-date. Like Vietnam, Indonesia represents an opportunity to play the next China. Strong demographics, fiscal responsibility and natural resource wealth will secure the nation's place in history. Both the iShares MSCI Indonesia (ARCA:EIDO) and Market Vectors Indonesia Small-Cap ETF (ARCA:IDXJ) offer exposure to the fast moving nation.

SEE: 3 Steps To A Profitable ETF Portfolio

The Bottom Line
For investors, Asia offers more opportunities than just China and India. The continent's frontier markets could be some of the best portfolio options for the long term. While currently difficult to access, those investors willing to go off the beaten path will be rewarded. The previous ideas, along with the iShares MSCI Thailand (ARCA:THD), make ideal ways to play the region, until a dedicated Asia frontier fund is launched.

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At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt did not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

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