Guide to Investing in Emerging Markets

By Mike Zaccardi, CMT, CFA · September 20, 2022 · 6 minute read

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Guide to Investing in Emerging Markets

Investing for retirement often includes both stocks and bonds, and within your equity allocation, emerging market stocks can play an important role in diversifying your portfolio.

Emerging market investments include owning shares in companies from countries like China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, among others. There are pros and cons to owning emerging market investments, but these stocks are a significant part of the global market.

Why invest in emerging markets when building a retirement portfolio? While it’s true that they can be volatile investments, this niche can provide strong returns and diversification benefits when preparing for retirement.

Understanding Emerging Markets

Opening a retirement account and including emerging markets in your portfolio may be a successful investing strategy.

Emerging markets are economies that are in the middle between the developing and developed stages. Emerging markets risk can be high since these areas often see rapid growth and high volatility with booms and busts. Some of the most well-known and biggest countries weighted in the emerging markets index include China, Taiwan, India, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.

Emerging market investments are generally seen as a higher-risk area of the global stock market. Volatility can spike during periods of political upheaval and when emerging market recessions strike.

As investors get older, risk must be managed through diversified investment plans. You should consider reducing emerging market exposure in your portfolio as your time horizon shortens and retirement nears.

Why Invest in Emerging Markets?

Emerging market investments have been popular for decades. It became easy to own a broad emerging market index fund within an investment portfolio in the early 2000s when exchange-traded funds (ETFs) took off. That’s also when this group of stocks started to outperform U.S. equities.

The decade of the 2000s featured strong outperformance from the high-risk, high-reward profile of emerging market investments. But volatility in these markets has also been a factor.

People like to invest in areas of the stock market that exhibit rapid growth potential along with having the potential for diversification. High economic growth rates, such as those in China and India, often attract investors seeking to benefit from stocks of those nations. Indeed, there can be periods like the 2000s when strong bull markets take place.

Moreover, owning high-growth areas within a tax-advantaged account can be a savvy retirement savings strategy. When choosing a retirement plan, it’s helpful to consider what assets to own in which account.

Can You Build a Retirement Portfolio With Emerging Markets?

Retirement and emerging markets can go together. Boosting retirement savings can be done through this group of securities. Also consider that emerging market bonds are a growing piece of the global fixed-income market.

In addition, owning emerging market investments in retirement accounts is easier than ever with low-cost ETFs and both active and passive mutual funds. Moreover, many 401(k) plans offer an emerging markets fund so you can have exposure through your workplace retirement account.

When thinking about emerging markets, you should put them in context. Emerging markets stocks represent just 11% of the global stock market. Emerging market bonds comprise roughly a quarter of the global bond market. Those are significant weights, and you can own both areas in your retirement portfolio through low-cost funds.

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Pros of Investing in Emerging Markets

There are many pros and cons of investing in emerging markets. When you start saving for retirement, that can be a great time to own emerging market stocks since you have a long time horizon to weather volatility.

Growth Opportunity

Many people contend that higher economic growth in emerging market nations can translate into growth potential for their stock markets. What’s more, many U.S. companies have significant emerging markets exposure through their global sales. So, corporations see opportunities in this space, too.

Also consider that nearly 80% of the world’s population lives in emerging market countries, while just 11% of the global stock market is weighted to them. Investing for retirement should have at least some exposure to this area for risk-tolerant individuals.

Diversification Benefits

International investments can help offset the ebbs and flows of U.S. stocks through diversification. Consider that the domestic equity market is 61% of the global market. So if the U.S. goes into a bear market, foreign shares might outperform. Retirement investing should have a diversified approach.

Cons of Investing in Emerging Markets

Emerging markets can be volatile, and they expose investors to a host of risk factors. Political, economic, and currency risks can all hamper emerging market investments’ growth.

Due to the many risks, it’s common for retirement investors to tone down their stock allocation as they approach retirement. Reducing exposure to the emerging markets area also makes sense, but it should still be considered for your equity sleeve in retirement.

Recent Underperformance

Emerging market stocks have done poorly over the last decade, particularly compared to how well the domestic stock market performed. In 2022, Russian equities were the latest area to pressure the emerging markets index hard. That stock market was forced to close, and its stocks plummeted in other markets.

Correlations Might Be Changing

Some argue that emerging markets today have more correlation to other markets, so having exposure might simply expose someone to the risks and not the benefits.

Highly Volatile

Older investors might want to steer away from the boom-and-bust nature of emerging markets. The process of evolving from an emerging market to a developed market is usually fraught with risk. In some areas, political turmoil might cascade into a full-blown economic recession.

Emerging market fixed-income investors can also suffer when high-risk currency values fall during such periods of volatility. Back in 1998, the “Asian Contagion” was an emerging markets-led debacle that caused a big decline in markets across the globe.

Uncertainty in China

China is now the biggest weighting in many emerging market indexes, up to one-third in some funds. That can be a lot in just one country, particularly in one as uncertain as China, given its one-party controlled economy.

Start Investing for Retirement With SoFi

Building a retirement portfolio often includes owning many areas of the global stock market. Emerging market investments can play a pivotal role to ensure your allocation has higher growth potential, but you must be mindful of the risks.

SoFi offers all the retirement planning tools you need, including online resources and complimentary access to financial advisors for SoFi members. When you’re ready to start investing for retirement, it only takes a small amount to open a traditional or Roth IRA account. Using the secure SoFi app, you can invest your retirement portfolio in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), fractional shares, and more. Get started now!


Is it worth investing in emerging markets?

Strong growth potential and diversification benefits are reasons to own emerging markets for your retirement portfolio. That said, emerging markets are a small part of the global stock market. A diversified retirement portfolio should include this slice of the market, but investors also must recognize the risks. There are periods during which emerging market investments can underperform the U.S. stock market.

What is the best emerging market to invest in?

When figuring out emerging markets, you might be curious which one is the best. It is hard to say there is one in particular. Emerging market risk can be high, so to help mitigate that, owning the entire basket can help ensure the benefits of diversification.

Should my entire retirement portfolio be in emerging markets?

Building a retirement portfolio with emerging markets is common but putting all your eggs in the emerging market basket might not be the wisest move. Young investors can perhaps own a larger weight in this volatile equity area, but older investors should think about winding down their emerging markets stock exposure as they near retirement.

Photo credit: iStock/Kateywhat

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