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India is an enigma to tech investors.
In theory, the world's second most populous nation should be a dream scenario for growth. You've surely had enough customer-service calls bounced out to Bangalore in recent years to know that the technological infrastructure is somewhat there. Labor costs are also cheap enough for the upside to be huge, even as India closes the gap with many developed nations.
There are plenty of reasons to begin thinking about India. Its government has made a firm commitment to improve the country's connectivity, and the next few years should show massive tech growth.
Of course, India is no China. We haven't been deluged with Mumbai-based dot-com darlings going public the way Chinese tech IPOs have. That's largely a result of the performance of many of the handful of Indian companies already trading on stateside exchanges: There's been too much red ink and slow growth. The Satyam accounting scandal two years ago didn't help, either.
So if you're an investor, you can't just heave a dart and buy any Indian stock. Let's go over two to buy -- and two to pass on -- right now.
2 to buy now
Let's kick things off with the stocks that would look pretty sweet in your portfolio.
Sify (Nasdaq: SIFY )
Few companies are better positioned to cash in on India's upcoming technological makeover than Sify. The online services seller is coming off an uninspiring quarter in which revenue climbed by a mere 7%, though its adjusted loss did narrow substantially.
Sify's growth awaits, and an Internet partnership with the international wholesale segment of Deutsche Telekom is proof that I'm not the only one eyeing Sify as a legitimate player despite its single-digit share price. This deal finds the two companies working together to offer IP and VPN services throughout India and Europe.
India Fund (NYSE: IFN )
Closed-end funds are always playing second fiddle to other investment vehicles. They've failed to catch on the way traditional mutual funds have over the years, and now the more ubiquitous exchange-traded funds have taken over as the pooled portfolio of choice for folks to trade throughout the day.
The good news is that the relative neglect means that many of these stocks trade at a discount to their holdings. India Fund, for example, is the cheaper of the two India-specific closed-end funds in trading at an 8% discount to its net asset value. This fund doesn't offer a tech- or growth-specific basket of stocks in India, though Infosys Technologies (Nasdaq: INFY ) is its largest holding, accounting for nearly 9% of the portfolio. Tata Motors (NYSE: TTM ) , the value-priced automaker that stands to benefit greatly as per-capita incomes improve in India, is the fund's fourth largest holding. These two stocks are attractive on their own, but they're even cheaper given India Fund's discount.
The bad news is that there's no guarantee the discount will narrow. Buying a buck for $0.92 sounds great now, but there's no way to know where things will stand when you want to cash out.
Rival Morgan Stanley India Investment Fund (NYSE: IIF ) has delivered better returns over time, but the larger India Fund's NAV is holding up better this year.
2 to sell
Now it's time to look at the investments that may be winners at some point, but not now. It's just too soon to hop on at these prices.
Rediff.com (Nasdaq: REDF )
One of India's most volatile stocks is this smallish portal. Rediff posted yet another quarterly loss on a 14% uptick in revenue in its latest quarter.
If you're wondering why Sify made it to my "buy" side after delivering a deficit on more anemic top-line growth, let's bring in absolute numbers. Sify's revenue for the first three months of 2011 clocked in at $38.2 million. Rediff had just $5.6 million.
This isn't a sign of how early we are in Rediff's story, since it was generating far more revenue a couple of years ago. It's just that small. A profitless company generating less than $2 million in revenue a month is not worthy of its $258 million market cap.
MakeMyTrip (Nasdaq: MMYT )
India's leading travel portal will be a stock worth owning eventually. It's just not an itinerary worth pursuing at the moment.
Two weeks ago, MakeMyTrip completed a secondary offering by selling 5.2 million shares at $24 apiece. The first piece of bad news is that this stock popped a whopping 89% higher on its first day of trading last summer, climbing as high as $42.88 a month later. If you're worried about companies that issue secondary offerings when their stocks hit new highs, you should be mortified when they're doing the same thing when the stock is tickling new lows.
The other piece of bad news is that more than two-thirds of those shares being offered came from selling shareholders.
Don't read too much into Oppenheimer's upgrade yesterday. It was a co-manager in the secondary, so it's just protecting its clients who are now underwater on that $24 investment.