Friday, April 7, 2017

Developed or Emerging: Classification Systems

Before we can consider in detail the question of how much should be invested in different international markets, and how, it is necessary to be clear on what we mean by terms like emerging and developed. Markets are classified by the major index companies. As an investor it is important to know what index your passive ETF or index mutual fund follows, and which countries are, and are not, included in that index.

MSCI Classification

MSCI (Morgan Stanley Capital International) provides one of the major classification systems used in the index investing world.  They divide equity markets into Developed, Developing and Frontier divisions (there is also a Standalone market index. with national exchanges not included in any of the previous three; this mainly includes very small or very isolated exchanges). You can see the details of which country is in which classification here.

FTSE Classification

The other primary classification system is provided by FTSE (now part of the combined FTSE-Russell). FTSE stands for Financial Times Stock Exchange. They divide markets into Developed, Advanced Emerging, Secondary Emerging and Frontier. You can see current country inclusion in the categories of the FTSE here. Of particular utility is their Matrix of Markets that lists stock markets by country against index segments.  This is a simple way to see if a particular country is in an index based ETF.

Things Change

The indexes are periodically reconsidered - for example FTSE update their list usually in March of each year. The process of deciding if countries should be moved to another category is complex.  Metrics are established for that process, looking at aspects such as transparency, accountability, liquidity and size of the market.  FTSE-Russell explain their process in a white paper available here. In the MSCI classification Pakistan will move from Frontier to Emerging in May 2017.

Should We Be Doing This?

Many have commented that the term emerging economy is obsolete and should be abandoned.  Certainly markets like China and India are rapidly growing and are similar in many ways to the markets in the developed category. While five characteristics are claimed to represent emerging economies and markets, application of these descriptors is difficult.

Also, there is a problem with any category system in that two stock markets with only slight differences might result in inclusion in different indexes. For example, why are Poland and the Czech Republic included in developing, yet those economies are similar in life style, economy and political environment to neighbouring European countries that are in the developed category? There appear to be similar discrepancies in Asia.

But we do need some way to lump together economies and stock markets that share similar characteristics.  One option might be to assign a grade to each stock market on a scale (say 0 to 100) based on how developed it is.  Then we could have indexes that track only markets with a score in a certain range.  While the result might be almost identical to the current system, there would be better transparency of results.

Final Thoughts

The Vanguard ETFs follow the FTSE index, while generally speaking the iShares ETFs follow MSCI. Vanguard have a really nice listing that links ETF products against the index they follow all on one page.

While the country inclusion is pretty similar in the MSCI and the FTSE, there are differences.  For example, FTSE place South Africa in developed, while MSCI do not. The Chinese stock market is divided into A and B categories, historically on the basis of whether foreigners were allowed to invest on that market. How the A Chinese stock markets are handled affects international index funds.

In a future posting I will I discuss the fraction of global equity assets in different markets, and the implications on how we should invest globally.

This posting is intended for education only and should not be considered investment advice. The reader is responsible for their own financial decisions.  The writer is not a professional financial planner or investment advisor. For major financial decisions it is always wise to consult skilled professionals. While an effort has been made to be accurate, any statements of fact should be independently checked if important to the reader.

Disclosure:  No compensation by any company, organization or individual has been offered, requested or received for writing this column.

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