Putting Another 'I' in BRIC

 | Sep 14, 2011 | 9:06 AM EDT
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At one point in 2000, three out four of my former Stanford roommates were "working in the dot-com space." Even more bizarrely, three out of three roommates from Harvard Law School were doing the same thing, though not that guy who stuck with his community organizing in Chicago. 

The dot-com boom didn't turn out all that well for any of my ex-roommates. "Partying like it's 1999" is now just an embarrassing gap on the Website of one of our more successful billionaire classmates who founded LinkedIn or funded Facebook.

Another financial fad that took a beating of late is investing in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, China and India).

Maybe it's just because I'm in the global investing space, but in 2009 it seemed that I couldn't pick up a newspaper or magazine without the word BRICs.

A quick search today on Google Trends confirmed this. A lot fewer investors -- and journalists -- are interested in BRICs than they were a couple of years ago.

About two years ago, I buttonholed Jim O'Neill of Goldman Sachs after a presentation at an Oxford Business Club meeting in London. O'Neill coined the term "BRIC" in 2001.

I then asked him what must be the most annoying question.

Why did he include a kleptocracy like Russia in the mix vs., say, Mexico.  O'Neill kind of, sort of fudged his answer, muttering something about Russia's store of natural resources.

Call me a skeptic, but I just think BRIC is a lot more catchy than BMIC.

For all the hype, BRIC stock markets have been a tough place to make money for you and me.

Just look at the performance of one of the handful of ETFs that were launched, predictably enough, at just about the time searches for the phrase BRIC hit their peak. (Here's one ETF that tracks Goldman rival Morgan Stanley's BRIC Index.)

It turns out, you would have been better off sticking with the tried-and-true  S&P 500 over the past couple of years.

And it's actually a good thing O'Neill ignored snarky questions like mine and included Russia in the BRIC mix. Although Russia makes up only about 15% of the MSCI BRIC index, as one of the world's top performing markets over the past decade, the BRIC index's performance would look a lot worse without it.

The more subtle point here is that -- as with dotcom companies and your classmates from college and law school --- it's hard to predict winners.

Indonesia is a case in point.

Notwithstanding the awkward acronym, today O'Neill would probably include Indonesia in a revised BRIC mix. 

Indonesia got its economic act together, rather unpredictably, right about the time the BRIC acronym began to take off.

With a population of 230 million, Indonesia has a bigger population than either Brazil or Russia. It was one of the few economies in the world never to enter into recession in 2008. And thanks to O'Neill's catchy BRIC slogan, it is now official government policy "to put another 'I' in BRIC."

Indonesia also happens to be the top-performing stock market in the world in 2011, at least among those global markets that can be accessed in your U.S. online brokerage account. It may be also the best-performing market in the world since stock markets bottomed in March 2009.

Just look at the performance of the Market Vectors Indonesia Index ETF (IDX) over the past few years.

Why do I think its strong performance is set to continue? My tongue-in-cheek answer is that every time I mention Indonesia on an investment panel at a conference, someone in the audience calls me crazy.

I can't ask for a better buy signal than that.



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