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Investors fret on emerging markets and look to U.S.

04/20/2012 | 07:12am US/Eastern
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Argentina's move to seize control of its biggest oil company, YPF, from Spain's Repsol (>> Repsol YPF SA) has led investors to dust off a near-forgotten accepted wisdom: that emerging markets are not for the faint-hearted.

Argentina's move to seize control of its biggest oil company, YPF, from Spain's Repsol (>> Repsol YPF SA) has led investors to dust off a near-forgotten accepted wisdom: that emerging markets are not for the faint-hearted.

Indeed, investment managers and private bankers to the very rich are allocating more of their portfolios to developed markets, particularly the United States, as faith in its structural resilience outshines the appeal of developing countries.

"If you are very thoughtful about it and don't want to get caught up in the headlines about the financial crisis dealing the U.S. a fatal blow, people are underestimating the resilience and structural diversity of the U.S. economy," said Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani, Chief Investment Officer for Goldman Sachs' private wealth management business.

To many, the nationalization of YPF is a reminder investment in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India or China exposes money to higher political risk, a fact often ignored amid frustration at sluggish growth rates in the developed world.

While Argentina's economic nationalism reminded people of political risk, mishaps suffered by some star investors who dabbled with the exotic have also left them reflecting on higher governance risk in such markets.

Fidelity's veteran British fund manager Anthony Bolton has disappointed investors with poor performances since he started running a China fund in 2010, and has flagged corporate governance in the region as a particular "challenge".

Goldman Sachs' (>> Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.) private client unit has long been a proponent of investing in the United States, arguing the strength of its political institutions, its corporations and levels of innovation give it bright medium-term prospects.

"We like emerging markets but we're not euphoric about emerging markets," said Mossavar-Rahmani.

This view contrasts with a widely held position that gained traction after the financial crisis, that the developed world is entering a long decline and the best prospects are to be found in fast-growing emerging markets, particularly in Asia.

"In our view, the global financial markets crisis of 2008-2009 was a watershed event and we are moving towards a new world order," said HSBC Global Asset Management in an investment report on Thursday.

But while investors are reporting signs that more money is starting to move to developed markets, the trend is already in evidence in the manufacturing sector.

"Capital goes where it's best treated," said James Abate, manager of PSigma's American fund and managing director of New York-based Centre Asset Management.

Big companies including Boeing (>> The Boeing Company) and General Electric (>> General Electric Company) have said they are considering moving some manufacturing back to the U.S. from emerging markets.

"We, lemming-like, over the last 15 years extended our supply chains a little too far globally in the name of low cost," said Jim McNerney, chief executive of world No. 2 plane maker Boeing, at a forum in Washington this year.

"We lost control in some cases over quality and service when we did that. We underestimated in some cases the value of our workers back here.

Arguments that structural features of the U.S. economy give it a secular advantage over emerging rivals will resonate with academics, many of whom have questioned assumptions by economists in financial services about the rise of China.

Economists such as Daron Acemoglu at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argue authoritarian countries are less effective than open societies such as the U.S. at incentivizing entrepreneurship and innovation.

A population incentivized to innovate and invest, results in more sustainable long-term economic growth than can be achieved in unequal societies like China, the argument goes.

More investors are now pointing to the success of companies such as Apple (>> Apple Inc.) as signs the U.S. is better at fostering new ideas and has a bright future in spite of recent financial turmoil.

"The high levels of innovation that exist here in the U.S. are quite hard to replicate in other parts of the world, and I think innovation is important and people do tend to forget about it," said Joanna Shatney, a portfolio manager of U.S. equities at Schroders (>> Schroders plc).

"If you're looking for the 'Steady Eddy' tortoise that might win the race ... we've got real ways to grow our economy."

(Reporting by Chris Vellacott, editing by Sinead Cruise and David Hulmes)

By Chris Vellacott

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