In late January 2007, State Street Global Advisors launched the SPDR FTSE/Macquarie Global Infrastructure 100 ETF (AMEX: GII ) . The fund is benchmarked against the Macquarie Global Infrastructure 100 Index, which is based on the global infrastructure industry. The index is made up of 100 companies and is designed to reflect the stock performance of companies engaged in management, ownership, and operation of infrastructure and utility assets.
With an average market cap of $32 billion, these are not small companies. Since utilities currently make up roughly 90% of the index and fund, maybe GII should have been called the emerging markets utilities fund. Regardless, the fund has a 0.60% expense ratio, which is a relatively low fee to pay for those seeking emerging-market exposure. Of course, the Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (AMEX: VWO ) has an even lower fee of 0.30%.
In 2006, global ETFs were the top-performing funds, driven in large part by the economic boom in Asia. However, the Pacific Rim was not the only place on the planet for strong markets, and ETFs from Spain to Mexico had excellent returns. Underlying the economic performance is the need to move goods and services in and out of these countries. This means infrastructure in the form of roads, bridges, and ports to service the fleets of planes, trains, ships, and trucks moving goods and people.
Emerging markets have rallied for the past five years, and there is no telling when this will stop. In 2006, high oil prices and a coup in Thailand failed to dent the upward march. In early 2007, Venezuela continued its capitalist bashing; its president, Hugo Chavez, threatened to nationalize the telecommunications company, CA Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela (NYSE: VNT ) ; and now it has its eyes on the oil industry. Foreign investors in Venezuela should be well aware by now of the risks they are taking with Chavez as president (the market there is off more than 15%). As Thailand and Venezuela demonstrate, there are any number of challenges to global investing, such as political, economic, and sudden currency changes that U.S. stockholders simply don't face.
Brazil, Russia, India, and China (also abbreviated as "BRIC") are important players in the emerging markets, and they're the primary countries to watch for signs of a slowdown. China specifically, with its large population, plays a crucial role, and economic growth in that country appears unstoppable -- although the same thing was said of Japan in the '70s. China's stock market seems to have reached bubble proportions, and even the government has expressed concern that it is out of control.
Unlike some ETFs that have come to market recently, GII has a solid foundation and premise for its investment approach. Population growth and rising disposable incomes mean billions of new consumers moving into the developed markets. It is hard to argue that infrastructure will not play an important part in the massive changes that are occurring in the global economy. GII can serve as a port of entry for those interested in participating in the buildup of emerging economies -- let's just hope it's a safe harbor.
Fool contributor Zoe Van Schyndel lives in Miami and enjoys the sunshine and variety of the Magic City. She does not own any of the funds or stocks mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.