12 Reasons to Invest in Africa

Over the past decade, South Africa outperformed the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

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Forget the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Larry Seruma, chief investment officer of Nile Capital Management, says many retail investors are missing a tremendous opportunity for growth in Africa. Seruma manages the Nile Pan Africa fund, the first actively managed, U.S.-based mutual fund to focus exclusively on Africa. He recently released a report, which can be seen here, that explains his investment firm's reasons for investing in the continent.

Seruma says more investors will begin to look outside of developed markets like the United States for growth, because those markets aren't expected to grow as fast as they have in the past. "It's only much more recently you're beginning to see these huge disparities coalesce," he says. "The U.S. is going to have very low investment opportunities going forward."

[See U.S. News's Mutual Fund Score to find the best investments for you.]

Investing in Africa involves plenty of risks. The biggest, Seruma says, is liquidity. "Liquidity is really the ability to trade frequently," he says. "When you want to get out of a position, it's not easy to get out of a position." Executing trades can be difficult because some African stock markets aren't as transparent and not as much trading takes place compared with, say, the S&P 500. There are other concerns, including the threat of government and corporate corruption. Many African countries have become functioning democracies, however, according to Seruma.

There are a number of other funds that give investors access to Africa and other "frontier" markets, which are also sometimes called pre-emerging markets. Templeton Frontier Markets and iShares MSCI South Africa Index ETF are two examples. Out of the 53 countries in Africa, Seruma's fund currently invests in 14, which together account for about 90 percent of Africa's overall market capitalization. Here are Seruma's reasons for investing in Africa.

'Ground-floor opportunity.' Seruma says many investors have already missed what he calls a "ground-floor opportunity" in Africa. For the decade ending Dec. 31, 2009, an African composite index made up of eight countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, returned about 14 percent annualized. South Africa alone returned an average of 13 percent per year over that period. Compare that with the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, which returned about 7 percent annualized, or the S&P 500, which lost about 3 percent over the same time period. He compares the risk versus return ratio in Africa today with emerging markets like China, India, and Brazil in the late 1900s—meaning that investors who enter a new high-growth market first reap the highest returns over time because they're willing to take on more risk.

[See The Opportunity in Africa.]

Low correlation. Correlation is a measure of how investments perform in relation to each other. A low correlation, for example, means that two securities will frequently move in opposite directions. According to Seruma's research, from January 2002 through June 2009, an African composite index of eight countries had a correlation of 0.59 with the S&P 500, 0.66 with the MSCI EAFE Index (which measures developed markets outside of North America), and 0.60 with the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. That means that 59 percent of the time, the returns of the African index differed from those of the S&P 500. Investors can use correlation statistics to find out how to better diversify their portfolios. "The African markets have a very low correlation with domestic or other emerging markets, so [you have a] good opportunity to actually reduce risk in the overall portfolio," he says. Diversifying your portfolio among uncorrelated assets can help offset big losses.

[See Why Emerging Markets Belong in Your Portfolio.]

Strong growth expected. According to projections from the World Bank, nine of the 15 countries in the world with the highest rate of five-year economic growth are in Africa. Seruma estimates that Africa is likely to grow by 4.7 percent over the next five years. Economists expect much slower growth in places like the United States and U.K. over the next few years. "It's a pretty huge growth differential," he says.