Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Investors bet Africa stocks are new tigers - WSJ

In site of the hurdlers such as the spread of civil unrests, AIDS epidemic, and collapse of commodity prices, foriegn invetors are dipping into Africian stocks through Liqudidnet and ETFs. Some view the continent as ready to emulate South Asia of 1980s with organizations in place to stimulate trades and residents' literacy on the rise... A lack of Olympic medals scarcely worries gold-rich Ghana, because the nation is a champion when it comes to stock-market returns. The Ghana Stock Exchange All-Share Index was recently up 63% for the year to date, helped by strength in gold miners and other commodity stocks, according to its Web site. That's compared with a loss of 13% for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index and similar losses for fading emerging-markets stars Brazil, Russia, India and China. From re-emerged South Africa to more incipient financial centers like Ghana, Egypt and Kenya, investors are engaged in a 21st-century scramble for Africa. The bet is that these nations are ready to emulate the economic and financial-market success of the South Asian tigers during the 1980s. The threats to Africa's emergence are myriad: the spread of conflicts and civil unrest like that in Sudan and the Congo, the AIDS epidemic and a crash in commodity prices, to name a few. Nevertheless, Wall Street brokers, equity-trading platforms, hedge funds and even a compiler of exchange-traded funds are ramping up their business in African markets. "If you look at [macro-level] risk, it compares to China in 1984," said Charl Malan, head of African research for Van Eck Global, a money-management firm that started the Market Vectors Africa Index ETF, the first of its kind, in July. "If you think the commodities cycle is unsustainable, then why is Africa sustainable? This time there's a whole range of growth initiatives put into place by various African leaders." The International Monetary Fund recently published a statistical comparison between a basket of sub-Saharan African economies -- including Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria -- today and a snapshot of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 1980. That economic cooperative then consisted of cub "tigers" like Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. In terms of gross domestic product expansion, money supply, and debt-market growth, the African nations compare favorably. Those comparisons go beyond statistics: "Just as first-generation emerging markets welcomed institutional investors to their equity markets, African countries are doing so now," wrote David Nellor, an Africa expert at the IMF in the institution's quarterly magazine. Organizations like the African Union have programs in place to stimulate trade and economic activity just as Asean did. Another key variable for economic development -- rates of primary-school education and literacy -- have picked up this decade in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank. In a January research note entitled "Africa Rising," Goldman Sachs initiated coverage of sub-Saharan Africa apart from South Africa, touting 15 stock markets with 500 tradable stocks, led by oil powerhouse Nigeria. Three of the top 10 fastest-growing nations in the world for 2006 were in Africa, Goldman wrote, and, while acknowledging risks, the broker said there is good reason to expect the growth to continue. "On the right path, but still a way to go," as the firm put it. An updated note may appear soon, a spokeswoman for the firm said. Van Eck's Africa Index ETF, the first U.S.-traded instrument offering broad exposure to the continent, mimics the performance of the Dow Jones Africa Titan 50 Index. That index comprises stocks from local indexes and those listed overseas with a majority of their business in Africa. Among the fund's largest holdings are an Irish oil company that drills in Africa, Tullow Oil PLC and First Bank of Nigeria. With about $5.5 million in assets under management so far and about 6,000 to 10,000 shares trading, the fund has hardly taken off but is a qualified success, said Adam Phillips, director of ETF sales at Van Eck. In the past 18 months, Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital has hired about 120 people in various African nations to coordinate a push into the area. That is out of a total of about 1,000 employees world-wide. "We're there to stay," said David Kuzmanich, director of international sales for RenCap in the U.S. The broker benefited from the increased volumes of Russian stock markets from 2000 to 2008, and "there's every indication that Africa will be the same," Mr. Kuzmanich said. With electronic markets making access to overseas stocks more convenient, U.S. equity money managers are also dipping into the African market. Liquidnet, the largest of the electronic alternatives to stock exchanges known as "dark pools" not operated by a Wall Street investment bank, counts South Africa as the eighth-most popular 2008 destination by volume out of 22 stock markets it connects to in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (the top destination being the U.K.) Liquidnet clients, among them many of Wall Street's most prominent money managers, have also expressed interest in trading Egyptian stocks, said Alfred Eskandar, global head of corporate strategy. While the company couldn't comment on specific plans, Liquidnet anticipates expanding access for its clients to more international markets soon. In October, emerging-markets broker Auerbach Grayson will host its second annual meet-and-greet for U.S. money managers and African corporations in Johannesburg. Last year, many hedge funds and emerging-markets specialists showed up. This year, they are joined by pension funds and other passive investors, said Jonathan Auerbach, one of that firm's founders. To Mr. Auerbach, Africa's urban centers have the same feel of boundless opportunity as Russia after the fall of communism, or even a New York of another age. "If you pull out a picture of the Lower East side of New York City at the turn of the century, you'll see this mass of the humanity. That's downtown Lagos [Nigeria] today," Mr. Auerbach said.

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