The Emerging Markets Hat Trick: Time to Throw Your Hat In?

Key Points:

  • Long-term investors have a unique investing opportunity in emerging market assets given the very rare combination of cheap equity valuations, depressed currencies, and positive momentum in equity prices and economic fundamentals.
  • Even after the strong rebounds in emerging market assets since January 2016, which ended prolonged bear markets across the asset class, expected real returns over the next decade are still very attractive.

On the rare occasion when a hockey player scores three goals in a single game, fans throw their hats into the rink to acknowledge the feat, called a “hat trick.” The term originated over 150 years ago on the cricket pitch in the United Kingdom: the bowler who retired three batsmen with three consecutive balls was awarded a new hat. Today’s sports fans have evolved the practice into literally pummeling the goal maker with hundreds of hats. What has not evolved, however, is the rarity of the achievement.

Just as the unusual occurrence of three goals triggers the throwing of hats into the hockey rink, today’s similarly rare combination of exceptional valuation levels, depressed currencies, and powerful momentum—both price and economic—should encourage long-term investors to “throw their hats” into the emerging markets rink.

We emphasize long-term investor because it’s impossible to possess the clairvoyance to perfectly time the markets. Most of the volatility in shorter-term price changes is unpredictable noise. By contrast, long-term returns are mostly a function of yield, plus growth, both of which can be estimated with increasing accuracy as we look further into the future. Accordingly, at Research Affiliates we focus on gauging which assets and currencies are priced to deliver attractive returns over longer horizons, all while using shorter-term price and economic momentum as a barometer for the conviction in our expectations of future returns. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Attractive Valuations
The investment community seems largely unaware of just how cheap emerging market (EM) assets have become as a result of a multi-year bear market that appears to have ended in early 2016. In January 2016, we characterized EM equities as “the trade of the decade.” The January lows were by all accounts exceptionally low. As far back as we have good data, we find only 24 non-overlapping instances—after screening 24 developed and emerging market countries—in which the Shiller P/E of a country’s equity market dipped below 10.0x. Even rarer is the Shiller P/E of an entire region dipping below 10.0x.

Driven by extremely cheap (and likely well-deserved) valuations in Brazil, Russia, Poland, and Turkey, the Shiller P/E of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index dipped below 10.0x in January for the first time since the index’s inception, settling just shy of that low at 9.6x to close out the month. With a 19% rebound since then, some investors might think they’ve missed the rally and it’s now too late to invest. They may want to reconsider.


The recent rebound in EM equities from February through November 2016 is tracking the average experience, and if history is any guide, the path of least resistance indicates more upside to come. The asset class may not deliver the additional 100% return over the next four years consistent with the average historical experience, but it’s by no means impossible. Even after this year’s rally, EM equities are trading at a depressed Shiller P/E of 11.2x, still well below the 13.0x observed during the darkest days of the 2008 global financial crisis.