As an example of how volatile these markets can be, the Bangladesh stock market sat near the top of Bespoke Investment Group's 2010 list of stock market performance by country, with a 75% return. A year later it was down 33%, and is down another 19% so far this year.
That kind of volatility necessitates diversification, but unfortunately, there's no official definition of what a frontier market is. Standard & Poor's, MSCI Barra, and FTSE all maintain different indexes of frontier market countries, and one indexer's list of frontier countries may include items from another's list of emerging market countries. Muddling things further, some countries have advanced all the way to developed status, but are kept on frontier and emerging indexes for the sake of consistency.
Despite the confusion, there are a growing number of ETFs seeking to give investors exposure to some of these markets.
But buyer beware!
Currently, the Guggenheim Frontier Markets ETF
You might try to invest in a basket of region-specific funds, but unfortunately, these often suffer the same problem. Take a look at some emerging and/or frontier market funds and see how concentrated they are in certain countries.
% Invested in Top Country
|Guggenheim Frontier Markets||Chile||38.4%|
|SPDR S&P Emerging Europe||Russia||62.6%|
|SPDR S&P Emerging Middle East & Africa||South Africa||90.3%|
|SPDR S&P Emerging Asia Pacific||China||36.2%|
Granted, most of these funds focus on emerging markets, not frontier, but remember that the terms are loosely defined so there's a lot of overlap in the funds' holdings. The point is, if you have to use imperfect funds to get frontier exposure, at least try to use the right imperfect funds.
So what's an investor to do?
What follows is not a list of recommendations per se. If I had my druthers, I'd own an equal-weight index ETF that only owns frontier countries. But if you need the precision of a tack hammer and all you have is a sledgehammer, you put on some Peter Gabriel and try to make it work.
In Africa, the Market Vectors Africa Index ETF
Moving east, the WisdomTree Middle East Dividend Fund
Southeast Asia is home to a surprising number of country-specific ETFs yet few diversified choices. As a result, the Market Vectors Vietnam ETF
Finally, there is one other option. Because equity markets in frontier countries are either nonexistent or nearly impossible to invest in, sovereign debt is sometimes the only way to gain exposure. The PowerShares Emerging Markets Sovereign Debt Portfolio
The Foolish bottom line
Most of these funds are very new and unproven. There are huge risks in their highly concentrated positions, and even buying all of them would only expose you to a small subset of a proper frontier markets index. That said, these are some of the only ways for the average investor to get exposure to these fledgling markets, and they are at least worth keeping your eye on to see what's out on the investing frontier.