Assets in acronyms

Thinking up catchy buzzwords has become a business in itself
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, right, greets China’s President Xi Jinping © AFP/Getty Images

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Businesses never used to think about acronyms. But, nowadays, thinking up catchy buzzwords has become a business in itself.

In the earliest years of my career, I worked in the same TV studio as a regional broadcaster who thought nothing (or certainly too little) of promoting his eponymous holiday business: Stuart Hall International Travel. I then left to join a short-lived heritage magazine that might have achieved more prominent shelf space had it been sold into stores under its unabbreviated name: Stately Homes and Gardens. I am just relieved that my current employer is being taken over by Japan’s Nikkei and not merged with the South Hertfordshire Advertiser.

Asset managers, however, seem to have spent more recent years contriving acronyms to enhance their credentials. It all started in 2001 when Jim, now Lord, O’Neill, erstwhile Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, noticed that the GDP growth of Brazil, Russia, India and China had surpassed that of G7 countries: on those Brics he built a fund, an index and a reputation as an expert on emerging markets. Four years later, he identified Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, South Korea and Vietnam as the next 11 growth opportunities but wisely chose to call the strategy N-11 rather than INVESTPIMPB. Or VISITBNPMP. Or, indeed, any other anagram. In 2010, HSBC tried to make the economies of Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, South Africa, Colombia and Turkey sound more inviting by likening them to small furry Asian and African mammals: the Civets. Then, a year later, Fidelity suggested how much investors might make if they stuck with Indonesia and Turkey, but added Mexico and Nigeria: a Mint.

Whether investors remain convinced by any of this is debatable. A couple of years ago, research by Citywire found that fund pickers were already “sceptical” about “marketing buzzwords” and unconvinced by asset allocations driven more by vowels than valuations. Even Lord O’Neill told Bloomberg he worried about “going down in history as . . . the guy that just constantly created acronyms”. And, now, it would seem, he has got his wish: two months ago, Goldman Sachs closed its Bric fund after the assets under management fell to $100m, from a peak of more than $800m in 2010. With China’s economy slowing on all bar the official measures and Russia’s reeling from collapsing commodity prices, it seems the countries could not be any more unappealing if they were grouped with Andorra and Puerto Rico.

According to index provider MSCI, equity investments in Bric markets have fallen 14.5 per cent over one year and 5 per cent over five. Apart from a 15 per cent rebound in 2012, the past four years have involved annual losses of 22.7 per cent, 3.2 per cent and 2.6 per cent. It was perhaps appropriate, then, that Lord O’Neill later added South Africa to the original quartet of geographies: anyone who invested in recent years will now be truly Bras[s]ic.

Even the newly Minted look a lot less well off, as Mexico and Indonesia’s earning power is hit by the fallen oil price and Turkey’s by fallen borders. Writing in the Financial Times last year, veteran City investor Terry Smith said: “Forget the Mints or the Civets — how about Moldova, Uganda, Greece and Suriname? These I have christened the Mugs, a pretty good description of anyone who would invest on this basis.”

But investment managers with longer time horizons argue there is no need to be so literal, or too offended. Last month, Neil Williams, group chief economist at Hermes Investment Management, pointed out that the C in Brics can still support its equity market. He argued that China could cut real lending rates from 4 per cent, further devalue the renminbi and spend more on infrastructure. Rothschild Wealth Management has noted a rebalancing of the Chinese economy alongside the slowdown. Similarly, Coutts has told its clients that service companies are taking over the prime position in China’s economy, as it moves from export and investment-led growth to greater reliance on domestic consumers.

As these Bric consumers benefit from rising wages, they even help the M of the Mints: rising labour costs in China make Mexico appear an appealing base for manufacturers wanting to export to the US.

Williams prefers to view the Bric slowdown as “the baton . . . being handed back to advanced economies to fuel world growth” — helpfully reminding us all that international travel need not be a bad thing.

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