Fidelity Total Emerging Markets (FTEMX), December 2015

By David Snowball

Objective and strategy

FTEMX seeks income and capital growth by investing in both emerging markets equities and emerging markets debt. White their neutral weighting is 60/40 between stocks/bonds, the managers adjust the balance between equity and debt based on which universe is most attractively positioned. In practice, that has ranged between 55% – 75% in equities. Within equities, sector and regional exposure are driven by security selection; they go where they find the best opportunities. The debt portfolio is distinctive; it tends to hold US dollar-denominated debt (a conservative move) but overweight frontier and smaller emerging markets (an aggressive one).

Adviser

Fidelity Investments. Fidelity has a bewildering slug of subsidiaries spread across the globe. Collectively they manage 575 mutual funds, over half of those institutional, and $2.1 trillion in assets.

Managers

John Carlson and a five person team of EM equity folks. Mr. Carlson has managed Fidelity’s EM bond fund, New Markets Income (FNMIX), since 1995. He added Global High Income (FGHIX) in 2011. He was Morningstar’s Fixed-Income Manager of the Year in 2011. He manages $7.8 billion and is supported by a 15 person team. The equity managers are Timothy Gannon, Jim Hayes, Sam Polyak, Greg Lee and Xiaoting Zhao. Gannon, Hayes and Polyak have been with the fund since inception, Lee was added in 2012 and Zhao in 2015. These folks have been responsible since 2014 for Emerging Markets Discovery (FEDDX), a four star fund with a small- to mid-cap bias. They also help manage Fidelity Series Emerging Markets (FEMSX), a four star fund that is only available to the managers of Fidelity funds-of-funds. The equity managers are each responsible for investing in a set of industries: Hayes (financials, telecom, utilities), Polyak (consumer and materials), Lee (industrials), Gannon (health care) and Zhao (tech). They help manage between $2 – 12 billion each.

Management’s stake in the fund

Messrs. Carlson, Gannon and Hayes have each invested between $100,000 and $500,000. Mr. Lee and Mr. Polyak have no investment in the fund. None of the fund’s 10 trustees have an investment in it. While they oversee Fidelity’s entire suite of EM funds, five of the 10 have no investment in any of the EM funds.

Opening date

November 1, 2011

Minimum investment

$2,500

Expense ratio

1.40% on assets of $62 million (as of 11/01/2015). There’s also a 1.5% redemption fee on shares held fewer than 90 days.

Comments

Simple, simple, simple.

The argument for considering an emerging markets fund is simple: they offer the prospect of being the world’s best performing asset class over the next 5 or 10 years. In October 2015, GMO estimated that EM stocks (4.0% real return) would be the highest returning asset class over the next 5-7 years, EM bonds (2.2%) would be second. Most other asset classes were projected to have negative real returns. At the same moment, Rob Arnott’s Research Affiliates was more optimistic, suggesting that EM stocks are priced to return 7.9% a year with high volatility compared with 1.1% in the US and 5.3% in the other developed markets. Given global demographics, it wouldn’t be surprising, give or take the wildcard effects of global warming, for them to be the best asset class over the next 50 or 100 years as well.

The argument against considering an emerging markets fund is simple: emerging markets are a mess. Their markets tend to be volatile. 30-60% drawdowns are not uncommon. National economies are overleveraged to commodity prices and their capital markets (banks, bond auctions, stock markets) can’t be relied upon; Andrew Foster, my favorite emerging markets manager and head of the Seafarer fund, argues that broken capital markets are almost a defining characteristic of the emerging markets. Investors yanked over a trillion dollars from emerging markets over the past 12 months.

The argument for investing in emerging markets through a balanced fund is simple: they combine higher returns and lower volatility than you can achieve through 100% equity exposure. The evidence here is a bit fragmentary (because the “e.m. balanced” approach is new and neither Morningstar nor Lipper have either a peer group or a benchmark) but consistent. The oldest EM balanced fund, the closed-end First Trust Aberdeen Emerging Opportunities Fund (FEO), reports that from 2006-2014 a blended benchmark returned 6.9% annually while the FTSE All World Emerging Market Equity Index returned 5.9%. From late 2011 to early 2015, Fidelity calculates that a balanced index returned 5.6% while the MSCI Emerging Markets Index returns 5.1%. Both funds have lower standard deviations and higher since-inception returns than an equity index. Simply rebalancing each year between Fidelity’s EM stock and bond funds so that you end up with a 60/40 weighting in a hypothetical balanced portfolio yields the same result for the past 10- and 15-year periods.

If balanced makes sense, does Fidelity make special sense?

Probably.

Two things stand out. First, the lead manager John Carlson is exceptionally talented and experienced. He’s been running Fidelity New Market Income (FNMIX), an emerging markets bond fund, since 1995. He’s the third longest-tenured EM bond manager and has navigated his fund through a series of crises initiated in Mexico, Asia and Russia. He earned Morningstar’s Fixed-Income Fund Manager of the Year in 2011. $10,000 entrusted to him when I took over FNMIX would have grown to $100,000 now while his average peer would be about $30,000 behind.

Second, it’s a sensible portfolio. Equity exposure has ranged from 55 – 73%. Currently it’s at the lowest in the fund’s history. Mr. Carlson says that “From an asset-allocation perspective, we believe shareholders can expect the sort of downside protection typically afforded by a balanced fund comprising both fixed-income and equity exposure.” He invests in dollar-denominated (so-called “hard currency”) EM bonds, which shields his investors from the effects of currency fluctuations. That makes the portfolio’s bond safety net extra safe. At the same time, he doesn’t hedge his stock exposure and is willing to venture into smaller emerging markets and frontier markets. At least in theory those are more likely to be mispriced than issues in larger markets, and they offer a bit more portfolio diversification. The manager says that “Based on about two decades of research, we found that frontier-markets debt performs much like EM equity.” In general the equity sub-portfolio’s returns are driven by individual security selection. It shows no unusual bias to any region, sector or market cap. “On the equity side, we take a sector-neutral approach that targets high active share, a measure of the percentage of holdings that differ from the index, which historically has offered greater potential for outperformance.”

Since inception in 2011, the strategy has worked. The fund has returned 2.9% a year in very rocky times while its all-equity peers lost money. Both measures of volatility, standard deviation and downside deviation, are noticeably lower than an EM equity fund’s.

ftemx

Bottom Line

I am biased in favor of EM investing. Despite substantial turmoil, it makes sense to me but only if you have a strategy for coping with volatility. Mr. Carlson has done a good job of it, making this the most attractive of the EM balanced funds on the market. There are other risk-conscious EM funds (most notable Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income SFGIX and the hedged Driehaus Emerging Markets Small Cap DRESX) but folks wanting even more of a buffer might reasonably start by looking here.

Fund website

Fidelity Total Emerging Markets

Disclosure: I own shares of FTEMX through my college’s 403b retirement plan and shares of SFGIX in my non-retirement portfolio.

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About David Snowball

David Snowball, PhD (Massachusetts). Cofounder, lead writer. David is a Professor of Communication Studies at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, a nationally-recognized college of the liberal arts and sciences, founded in 1860. For a quarter century, David competed in academic debate and coached college debate teams to over 1500 individual victories and 50 tournament championships. When he retired from that research-intensive endeavor, his interest turned to researching fund investing and fund communication strategies. He served as the closing moderator of Brill’s Mutual Funds Interactive (a Forbes “Best of the Web” site), was the Senior Fund Analyst at FundAlarm and author of over 120 fund profiles. David lives in Davenport, Iowa, and spends an amazing amount of time ferrying his son, Will, to baseball tryouts, baseball lessons, baseball practices, baseball games … and social gatherings with young ladies who seem unnervingly interested in him.