Asia Rising

There are two emerging heavyweight world economies: China and India. Together, the two giants are home to 2.3 billion people, three times as many as those who live in all the economically developed nations combined. Economic growth in these Asian nations has been proceeding at the astonishing pace of 8% to 10% a year. To put that in perspective, the U.S. is considered to have a boom year if growth hits 4%. Many people believe economic growth in China and Asia can grow even faster.

“[China and India] have large, billion-plus populations, but they’re not punching at their weight,” says Eric Sandlund, manager of the Columbia Newport Tiger Fund, which invests in Asian funds. “Their gross domestic products are much smaller than you’d expect for economies of their size. Until the last decade or two, they have not pursued market-oriented policies.”

Such policies have created megagrowth that makes it tempting to invest in Indian or Chinese companies. But there is risk too. India has faced political turmoil as recently as May, and China faces uncertainty as to how much free enterprise the Communist government will permit. Mutual funds offer several possibilities:

Country funds. A few mutual funds invest only in the stocks of India or China. “For China, you have a spectrum of investment opportunities,” says Bill Rocco, senior analyst at mutual fund research company Morningstar. “The purest [funds] are shares of mainland China companies [that trade] on local exchanges. Most funds have more exposure to China through Hong Kong companies.”

Such funds can have very good years … and very bad ones. For example, the Eaton Vance Greater India (ETGIX) fund had three years of losses, followed by a 114% return in 2003. Similarly, AllianceBernstein Greater China (GCHAX) posted an 81% return last year, after negative results in 2000, 2001, and 2002.

Regional funds. Morningstar has a “Pacific/Asia ex-Japan” category of Far East funds that exclude Japanese companies. Morningstar reports the average fund in this group had 25% to 30% of its assets in Hong Kong/China and India, mainly in the former market. Some funds had greater exposure, though: Columbia Newport Tiger (CNTBX), for example, had more than 35% of its assets in those two markets. Regional funds tend to be slightly less volatile than single-country funds.

“If you want Asian expertise,” says Rocco, “Matthews is the place to go,” referring to a family of funds specializing in Asian stocks. Mark Headley, president of San Francisco-based Matthews International Capital Management, who co-manages several of those funds, says that Matthews Pacific Tiger (MAPTX) is the best choice in his shop for investors who want both Chinese and Indian stocks. “This fund has over 40% [of its holdings] in those two markets, with an enormous exposure to China/Hong Kong.”

Diversified emerging markets funds. These funds invest in areas such as Latin America and South Africa, but have less exposure to China and India. Nevertheless, some entries cover the Asian countries: Oppenheimer Developing Markets (ODMAX), which Rocco calls “an excellent source of international spice,” recently held 22% of