In the pantheon of international investing, if this were a World Cup, Africa and the Middle East would be the "team" that has a few really nice players, but not the complete roster to seem like a contender to win the whole enchilada.
Perhaps I should say the "whole pita" or the "whole injera" or something more geographically appropriate. However, as someone who relishes the thought of digging in places other people might want to avoid, I was pretty sure that I would be able to find some real value in Africa and the Middle East. Besides, everyone else here seems to have forgotten that the expanse of Africa and the Middle East contains two ideally situated, rapidly growing, developed economies with robust levels of minority shareholder protection.
Yes, on my team, I get Israel and South Africa. I also get Turkey, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with plenty of connection to Europe. My markets are also somewhat easy to track: Of the 66 countries that make up Africa and the Middle East, those are the only three countries that have companies listed on the three major U.S. exchanges. Israel is a burgeoning financial and technological powerhouse. South Africa is king of the precious-metals and diamond-mining businesses. And Turkey has a cellular company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Africa and the Middle East have more than their fair share of economic basket cases, to be sure. Congo? Disastrous. Somalia? May or may not have a government, and either way, it's at minimum a failed state. Zimbabwe has been run into the ground by policies that are so destructive and random that the country might have been better off if economic policymaking was done using Yahtzee dice and a highly trained chinchilla. These countries have no direct exposure to the major U.S. exchanges.
Unfortunately, neither do a number of smaller countries that have rapid growth rates and burgeoning economies. Botswana, for example, has recently held a higher sovereign debt rating than Japan. Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, and Namibia offer developing economies and burgeoning local stock exchanges. And across the Red Sea, the stock markets in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have been among the fastest rising in the world before a recent swoon. Unfortunately, none of these markets is functionally open to international investors. Lebanon has corruption problems galore, which serve to impair its standing globally. However, Beirut has been a center for commerce and banking in the region for millennia, and the nation's emergence from decades of crippling civil war has created awesome opportunities.
Cracks are opening. Qatar Telecom is available on the London Stock Exchange, and billionaire Saudi Prince al-Waleed's Kingdom Hotels is exploring the ability to list overseas as well.
What Africa and the Middle East have in quantities that are unequaled anywhere else in the world is potential. This is the most mineral-rich region in the world, and plenty of companies for which I cannot "claim" for these purposes do enormous levels of work here, from Royal Dutch Petroleum
At the same time, as investors we cannot simply put our money into "potential." With the opening up of Africa to both the South African and (to a smaller degree) Israeli companies, growth in Africa is best tapped using companies that know the ground but are based in countries with sufficient shareholder protections. AngloGold Ashanti
Gold? Paper? Beyond offering a proxy for the great currency debasement arguments circling the developing world, these might not offer the most exciting potential for investors. Look to the north, in Israel, and you'll find the foreign country that has more companies listed in the U.S. than any other. Many of these companies, like Answers
Africa and the Middle East may not be the first region people think of when they decide to look for overseas exposure. This is admittedly prudent. But between the diverse powerhouse economies of Israel and South Africa, plus the myriad ways of investing in the region through foreign companies operating there, you're going to see that plenty of that raw potential is going to turn into profits in the next decade.
Africa and the Middle East are facing Developed Asia in this Investing World Cup match. Go back to the intro page to navigate your way to another part of this contest, and then vote for the region that you think should advance to the next round of the tournament.
For more international stock ideas, check out The Motley Fool International Report: Around the World in 80 Minutes.
Bill Mann owns shares of none of the companies mentioned. He is the co-advisor of the Motley Fool Hidden Gems newsletter, which has turned up some dandy international companies since its inception.
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