The trouble is, it is not just the BRICS. All the snazzy acronyms to describe investment ideas over the last few decades have come just as badly unstuck.The truth is that investment crazes encapsulated in smart acronyms, and peddled with some slick marketing hype, always turn out to be bogus. The world is too complex to be reduced to a slogan – and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling snake oil.
The BRICS concept was first coined by the former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill back in 2001, and for a brief period was all the rage. Fund managers were falling over each other to launch their shiny new BRICS funds. And every portfolio manager was telling clients how they had cleverly sprinkled some of their high-growth magic onto an otherwise dull portfolio of blue-chip stocks.
It was easy to see what they getting at. After the financial crash, most of the developed economies seemed so burdened down by massive debts, ageing populations, and crushingly expensive welfare systems, that they were going to be incapable of sustained growth. Big new developing countries, with huge populations, looked set to dominate the new century – and every smart investor would want a slice of that action.
The trouble is, it has not worked out very well.
Brazil is slipping into recession. Russia is already there, following the collapse in oil prices and the sanctions that were imposed on it following its adventures in the Ukraine. South African output is likely to stagnate this year. India will miss its growth target for 2015. And now China, while still growing, looks set to slow sharply – and no one can rule out the possibility of a catastrophic collapse in its economy.
It doesn’t stop there, however. Take a look at the ‘Next 11’, another Goldman Sachs grouping which bundled together the emerging countries set to follow the trail blazed by the BRICS, and which included countries such as the Philippines, Turkey and Mexico. As it turns out, the average Second Eleven at a minor prep school would have performed better than this lot. Overall, those countries are down by a combined 19pc this year, an even worse showing than the BRICS. Or how about the MINTS? That was another O’Neill coinage, and it included Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. Better not to ask how they are doing.
Turkey is in freefall. Last month the lira hit a record low against the dollar, and its stock market has been hammered. Indonesian growth has slowed to a five-year low. Nigeria, a major oil producer, has been hit hard by the falling price of crude, and Mexico has had to slash its growth forecasts.
When you look at the record, it turns out that any acronym, slogan-based investment theme is invariably a flop. In reality, there are two problems with this kind of craze. The first, and most obvious, is that any attempt to simplify what are in reality very complex themes is doomed to disappointment. Marketing departments love them because you can turn them into a slick advert, and they make global strategists and chief economists sound smart at Davos. But the substance usually falls well short of the hype. It is of course true that emerging markets are likely to grow faster than the old developed economies over time. That does not mean, however, that all of them will be equally successful, that quite a few won’t collapse along the way, or even that economic growth will translate into rising stock prices. Likewise, it was certainly true that tech companies would grow faster than the average business. But it didn’t follow that telecoms would do as well, nor did it account for the fafact that internet companies would have a spectacular failure rate as well as a few amazing successes. Any kind of attempt bundle stocks or countries together will miss that complexity – and that is likely to ruin its performance.
Second, some countries or companies end up being thrown into the mix just because they start with the right letter. It is hard to imagine what a corrupt and inefficient South Africa was doing on the list of BRICS, apart from providing a useful plural for that collection of c
tries. Kenya would have been a far better choice, as it happens. Likewise, there were probably only 39 decent mega-caps in the mid-1970s – but the Nifty 39 doesn’t have much of a ring to it.
In truth, there are no simple short-cuts to investment success, and certainly none that can be summed up in a slogan. Choosing the right companies and countries to invest in involves hard work and careful selection. Anyone who pretends otherwise is just trying to fool you, and earn themselves a generous commission. Next time, if you really want to invest in an acronym, then try that quartet of economies from each major region, Japan, United States, Netherlands and Kuwait – otherwise known as JUNK. It could hardly do any worse than any other snappily titled group of mark