2020 World Economic Forum in Davos
INTERNATIONAL - Emerging markets are at a rare inflection point, with multiple crosscurrents.

A combination of the ultra-loose monetary policy hangover from the global financial crisis, a low global growth environment from weak manufacturing and industrial activity, the continued rise of the consumer, and the disruption and opportunities of the new economy have provided a heady mix.

While market sentiment in 2019 was weighed down by easing growth concerns, emerging market growth is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to accelerate in 2020, and remain more than double that of developed markets.

Improving fiscal, economic and monetary policies and a renewed focus on structural reforms in many emerging markets has been gaining traction.

Supported by more conducive monetary policies in developed economies and easing inflationary pressures, central banks in emerging markets generally turned more dovish in 2019. We expect this trend to continue in 2020, as policymakers have greater flexibility in stimulating economic activity.

Although US-China trade tensions have de-escalated in the short term, on rising expectations of a partial trade deal and plans for both countries to scale back tariffs, we expect the broader economic conflict to remain for some time. The impact from the trade conflict has not been limited to China. While US imports from China over the past year declined $35billion (R505.68bn) to $497bn, China’s imports from the US decreased by more - $40bn to $125bn.

Therefore, we believe a comprehensive agreement remains in the best interests of both sides.

The Trump administration will be acutely aware of this heading into an election year.

China’s initiatives to strengthen and diversify its economy have been largely overshadowed by trade and slowing growth fears.

The government’s focus on economic restructuring and long-term sustainable growth has led to an acceleration in the implementation of structural reforms and widespread industry consolidation, as well as the development of local supply chains in the technology space to replace US sources.

China will be a frontrunner in the 5G arena and is expected to have some 600million 5G subscribers by 2025, or about 40percent of the forecast 1.6billion subscribers globally. Together with artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, this will help drive growth in China’s new economy as it strives to become less reliant on the US.

In our view, China will emerge stronger and more self-reliant with multiple pillars of economic support through this crisis.

Taiwan is seeing some spillover benefits from the trade war as its companies start onshoring some operations.

Government incentives to attract operations back to Taiwan mean that this will have ripple effects on the domestic economy.

As one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for digital consumers, India is a market where disruptive technology is driving productivity and deflation more than generally expected, with value accruing to end-users.

Key reforms - including the recent reduction in corporate tax rates, measures to improve the regulatory environment and monetary easing - will likely steady the economy.

In Brazil, optimism surrounding the government’s economic agenda has resulted in a more favourable investment climate.

While the country’s economic recovery has been slower than expected, we believe the government and central bank’s efforts are improving the country’s longer-term growth potential.

Inflation has remained under control, allowing the central bank to ease rates to record lows to stimulate the economy.

Social security reform is key to stimulating investment and credit, which will help improve economic activity and can significantly reduce Brazil’s fiscal deficit.

A major privatisation plan has also been announced, and tax and other structural reforms should improve the ease of doing business.

The emerging market landscape continues to transform as policymakers focus on building resilience during times of stress.

Emerging market economies are more diversified now - with domestic consumption and technology offering new drivers of growth - and they are growing less reliant on low-cost manufacturing and commodities.

Since the turn of the century, we have witnessed a significant increase in the trade value of hi-tech goods being exported by emerging market countries.

We have also seen how companies are using innovation and technology to leapfrog and disrupt traditional business models. Areas such as e-commerce, digital banking and mobile computing will be fundamental drivers of emerging markets for years to come.

Equally, fields such as AI, autonomous driving, robotics and the “internet of things” continue to attract investment, signalling strong longer-term prospects.

Much noise and conflicting signals dominated 2019, which led many investors to limit their risk appetite and discount the long-term growth drivers in emerging markets.

While some of these uncertainties may persist in the near term, we believe it is essential to stay the course. The markets are just beginning to realise opportunities from technology disruption and the transition of businesses away from traditional models.

We believe the investment scope in the emerging world is wide and promising for investors who can overlook near-term volatility and invest for the longer term.

Manraj S Sekhon, CFA, is chief investment officer of Franklin Templeton Emerging Markets Equity.

BUSINESS REPORT