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Time to Get Long Vietnam? The Case for Owning Frontier Markets

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By now, most investors are at least familiar with, if not invested in, the emerging markets. It's an asset class that has truly come into its own over the past twenty years, bringing unimagined liquidity and opportunity to growing economies around the world through both stock and bond investment.

Lately, however, the emerging markets (EEM) have been a stark under-performer. At a time when the U.S. and most developed markets have simply been a bit soft, the emerging markets have been plunging, and understandably, investors are running for cover.

Related: U.S. Will Benefit From Emerging Market Slump: Rich Bernstein

But while the so-called second string struggles, at least one big name investor says it's time to think even smaller, and is recommending a switch into what's known as frontier markets, which is to say, places like Vietnam and Kazakhstan and Ghana and Oman that someday hope to grow into emerging markets.

"The frontier markets still remain undiscovered," says Jack Ablin, CIO at BMO Private Bank, especially compared to the emerging markets which are now widely owned by institutions and individuals. "I believe the frontier now is where emerging markets were 13 years ago."

To be clear, the concept of frontier markets was hatched 20 years ago in France, but today, MSCI, FTSE, and S&P each have their own list of two to three dozen nations that they consider to be frontier countries. As a result, the holdings of various index funds investing in frontier markets can be widely different, as can the performance. For example, the iShares MSCI Frontier 100 Markets (FM) is up 15 percent year to date, while the Guggenheim (FRN) version of the same is down 15 percent.

While Ablin warns that it this is still "a very, very thin market" that can be tough to navigate, he's confident that individuals will be early adopters of the next big thing.

Already, there's a noticeable performance discrepancy that's pointing in their face and that alone is drawing further attention to them.

"I wouldn't necessarily sell out of the S&P 500 to buy frontier," he says, but if you already have some exposure to international or emerging markets he says this could be a good time to shift some money into these temptingly tiny locations. "It could be a good diversifier that's incrementally cheap."

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