The way investors think about emerging markets has been evolving—along with the markets themselves. One thing we at Templeton Emerging Markets Group emphasize is that one can’t consider emerging markets as one asset class; the opportunities are very differentiated between regions, countries and markets, with different fundamentals shaping them. Here, I’ve invited Stephen Dover, managing director and chief investment officer of Templeton Emerging Markets Group and Franklin Local Asset Management, to share his view of how emerging markets have changed over time, how he thinks investors should think about them, and where he sees potential opportunities ahead.

I think emerging markets are appropriately named—they are indeed emerging and have changed over time. With these changes, I believe the way people both think about and invest in the asset class also should evolve.

One example of the evolution we have seen is in regard to market capitalization (market cap). In 1988, when the MSCI Emerging Markets Index was first launched, just two of the 10 countries in the index—Malaysia and Brazil—represented more than half of the index’s market cap.1 At that time, the entire market cap of the index was about US$35 billion, representing less than 1% of the world’s equity-market capitalization. 2

If we fast-forward to 2016, there were 23 countries in the index, and the market cap had grown to US$4 trillion, representing about 10% of world market capitalization.3 The mix of countries in the index has also evolved over time. In terms of country weights, today, India represents 8% of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index and China—which wasn’t represented at all in 1998—is nearly 27% of the index today. Meanwhile, Brazil’s representation is much less today, at only 8%.4

What constitutes an emerging market has also changed significantly over time, but the waters in emerging markets have not always been very clear.

South Korea has been the subject of some debate in this regard. MSCI includes South Korea in the emerging-markets category, while another index provider, the FTSE Russell, considers it a developed market. This issue is quite important, as which countries are in which category and at what percentage in the indexes help determine how many investors position their portfolios. We have seen countries shift in and out of emerging-market status over time. For example, in 2013, MSCI reclassified Greece from developed to emerging-market status, and in 2016, MSCI announced Pakistan will be reclassified this year as an emerging market from frontier status.5

It really boils down to how one defines “emerging market,” and there is some disagreement about exactly what the criteria should be. MSCI and FTSE have their own criteria for inclusion in a particular index, including explicit requirements for market size and liquidity, a country’s openness to foreign ownership, foreign exchange and other aspects.

If you were to follow the World Bank’s standards as to which countries are classified as “high-income” to determine developed-market status, you’d wind up with a very different set of constituents than the index providers—for example, Qatar’s per-capita income ranks above that of Australia, Denmark and the United States.6

That said, we at Templeton Emerging Markets Group are active managers and not confined to a particular benchmark classification or index weighting when we make our investment decisions. We employ a bottom-up approach and focus on the fundamentals we see in individual companies. We may even invest in a company that is located in a country considered to be developed—if the bulk of its profits come from emerging markets.