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China and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index: A Distinction Without a Difference?

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Greg Liebl, CFA

Director, Investment Strategy

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If all goes according to plan, this month MSCI will pull the trigger on the first of a three-step process to further increase China’s weight in its emerging markets index.

The plan, announced in February, raises China A-shares’ inclusion factor in the index from 5% to 10% in May, to 15% in August, and finally to 20% in November.

At that point the weight assigned to China’s mainland market will account for approximately 3.3% of the index. This is in addition to the nearly 30% weight the MSCI Emerging Markets Index is already carrying from inclusion of Chinese companies listed on overseas exchanges. And it’s unlikely to stop there: MSCI has indicated that a full inclusion of China’s mainland market is quite possible in the future.

While China’s weight in the index has increased gradually over time, at its current (and proposed) levels the index is now in danger of having its performance dominated by the returns of its largest constituent country. This leads to a natural question: Is an investment in the MSCI Emerging Markets index essentially a bet on China? And if so, does that make sense for investors seeking broad exposure to the emerging markets?

China and MSCI: a long history of inclusion
While China has been included in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index since 1996—first through the inclusion of B-shares, then through the addition of Hong Kong and overseas-listed companies—as the chart below shows, that weight has grown consistently over the years into a sizable concentration.

China and MSCI: a long history of inclusion chart

Sources: MSCI, Parametric, 12/31/2018. Provided for illustrative purposes. Not a recommendation to buy or sell any security. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. “MSCI” and MSCI Index names are service marks of MSCI Inc. (“MSCI”) or its affiliates. The Parametric Emerging Markets Strategy is not sponsored or endorsed by MSCI or its affiliates.

Since the initial announcement by MSCI in June 2017 to include China A-shares in the index, China has made significant progress on many fronts, including making its local markets more accessible to foreign investors and significantly reducing the voluntary trading halts that plagued these markets only a few years ago. And while the liberalization of China’s capital markets should be celebrated by global investors, its growing weight in what’s considered a passive market index shouldn’t be. While it’s not clear how large MSCI will allow China’s weight to be in the future, it seems clear that the MSCI Emerging Markets Index has evolved from a relatively broad basket of developing nations into an index so concentrated that it loses its ability to track the general market it claims to represent.

Potential Parametric solutions

China and MSCI: a converging future
By the end of 2019, China will account for nearly a third of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, but that may not be where it ends. According to a consultation paper published by MSCI, a hypothetical full-inclusion scenario could see China’s weight increase to over 40% of the index in the future. Though it’s not exactly clear when the hypothetical would play out, an allocation that large would severely dwarf the next largest country, South Korea, which would account for less than 13% of the index. In fact, a weight that large would put China on equal footing with the next five countries combined, which begs the question we asked earlier: How distinct will the index actually be from what’s happening in China?

To try to answer that, let’s revisit the index’s prior 10 years of performance with the assumption that China’s weight had increased to 40% at the beginning of that period. We can then compare its results with those of the MSCI China Index to see how similarly they would have behaved. In creating this hypothetical index, we set China’s weight to 40% on December 31, 2008, and let its weight drift thereafter.  

China and MSCI index chart

Sources: MSCI, Bloomberg, Parametric. For illustrative purposes. Not a recommendation to buy or sell any security. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

The chart shows how China-like the hypothetical emerging markets index would have looked on a calendar-year basis, with very minimal deviation seen overall from what China alone was doing. In fact, the annualized returns over this 10-year period were 8.5% for the hypothetical index versus 8.3% for MSCI China, with both exhibiting very similar levels of annual volatility—28.8% for the hypothetical emerging markets index and 27.8% for the MSCI China Index.

But the similarity of returns isn’t limited to annual time periods—monthly returns yield a similar picture over this 10-year window. The graph below presents a scatterplot of monthly returns for the China and hypothetical emerging markets indexes. As we can see, the monthly returns for the two indexes moved together almost all the time. What’s more, if we dig into the numbers a bit further, we discover that 85% of the variation in monthly returns in the hypothetical emerging markets index is explained by China.

EM Index Monthly Return Chart

Sources: MSCI, Bloomberg, Parametric, 12/31/2018. For illustrative purposes. Not a recommendation to buy or sell any security. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which these two wouldn’t track each other—the remaining 23 (soon to be 25) countries in the index would need to consistently move in concert to crowd out China’s impact. Given that emerging market countries tend to be isolated from the global investor base and contain companies focused more heavily on their respective domestic market, this seems highly unlikely. Empirical evidence adds some credence to this viewpoint, since the average pairwise correlation of the countries in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, excluding China, has been a meager 0.39 over the past five years. Such a low figure reinforces the notion that broad diversification should be sought out in this asset class instead of shunned as it is in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

The bottom line
Concentration risk is a familiar foe in the emerging markets asset class, where passive solutions have increasingly exposed investors to outsize exposures to the largest countries by market capitalization. MSCI’s announcement that China’s mainland market will see more inclusion in its emerging markets index by the end of 2019 reinforces that fact. And while that alone is cause for concern, more troubling is how China’s weight in the index is probably not done growing. Nothing against the Chinese market, but I’d prefer my emerging markets exposure be more than just a bet on China.

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