The recent recession and the seemingly ever-present fear of a double dip has caused many consumers to sharply cut back on their discretionary purchases. High unemployment levels across much of the developed world have not helped matters either, as governments have struggled to balance job creation programs with the implementation of austerity measures demanded by rising budget deficits. These recent events have had a devastating effect on many family balance sheets and have left many unable or unwilling to make discretionary purchases.
Not everyone has glued shut their wallets. For those with the means, the current environment presents one of the best buyers' markets in decades. The millionaires of the world are likely to keep spending and have the ability to weather a double dip better than most. These high net worth individuals seldom live paycheck to paycheck, and are more likely to have disposable income to spend or cash reserves in case of a sharp downturn. Millionaire households represent less than 1% of the world's population but control 38% of the world's wealth, suggesting that they drive an outsized portion of global GDP and can be a boon to struggling economies during downturns. Luckily for investors, the top three countries with the highest percentage of millionaire households [according to a recent study] all have exchange-traded funds tracking their economies. Below, we profile these three ETFs which may be low risk options for investors seeking international exposure:
Singapore: iShares MSCI Singapore Index Fund
Percentage of millionaire households: 11.4%
More than one out of every ten households in Singapore is worth more than $1 million, making the island nation home to one of the most unique economies in the world. The country's status as a financial hub has made many citizens exceedingly wealthy. This is also reflected in the Singapore ETF; financial stocks make up more than half of total assets, followed by industrial materials and telecommunication (both about 12%). The fund has about 32 securities in total and allocates close to 11% in four companies; United Overseas Bank, DBS Group, Singapore Telecom, and financial giant OCBC. Like much of Southeast Asia, Singaporean markets have held up in the recent downturn; EWS is down only slightly in 2010 [also see Singapore ETF Surges On Mind-Boggling GDP Growth].
Hong Kong: iShares MSCI Hong Kong Index Fund
Percentage of millionaire households: 8.8%
Many millionaires in Hong Kong have made their money by investing in real estate and other financial services in the tiny, densely populated island. EWH, a fund tracking the MSCI Hong Kong Index, reflects the composition of the economy, allocating just over half of its assets toward financial securities (including 8.4% to Sun Hung Kai Properties and 7.2% to Cheung Kong Holdings). The fund also offers decent exposure to business services (16.3%), and the low-risk utility sector (14.6%) as well. EWH is up 11% over the past 52 weeks but it is down slightly in 2010 [also see the Complete List Of The Cheapest ETFs].
Switzerland: iShares MSCI Switzerland Index Fund
Percentage of millionaire households: 8.4%
The Swiss are best known for three things: chocolates, neutrality, and banks. The last of these has made many Swiss extremely wealthy, and the small European economy has been one of the continent's few bright spots. Not surprisingly, the Swiss economy is in much better shape than the rest of Europe, thanks to a non-euro currency and years of modest government spending. EWL focuses on health care and consumer good firms, which combine to make up slightly more than 50% of the fund's total assets. Its top holdings are food giant Nestle (19.3%) and medical firm Roche (13.1%). The fund is up almost 20% over the past 52 weeks, but it has slumped thus far in 2010. EWL is down close to 10%, making it one of the best performing funds in the Europe Equities ETFdb Category [also see Switzerland ETF: Exposure To Europe's Bright Spot].
Local consumption vs. exports
The last several years have highlighted the risks that exist when global equity markets are more interconnected than ever before. First, a meltdown in the U.S. real estate market spread throughout the global economy. In recent months, the U.S. has found itself on the other side of that equation; despite relatively stable economic fundamentals, domestic equity markets have suffered as concerns about Europe's fiscal woes have spooked investors. Economies that rely heavily on exports have been pummeled, while those that depend more heavily on local consumption have held up relatively well.
A high concentration of millionaires is no guarantee that local spending will be recession-proof, but it certainly is interesting to note that the three economies profiled above have stood up relatively well to the turmoil of the last two years.
Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.
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