Pakistan’s Enormous Long-Term Growth Potential
This tumultuous country is making real progress, and its young population is eager for a better life. An ETF pick to participat
April 23, 2016
Photo: Bloomberg News
To Western eyes, building a business in Pakistan seems nearly impossible with the country’s history of political turmoil and bouts of deadly terrorism committed by Islamic extremists.
But there is a long-term growth story in the frontier market, where the economy is expanding at a roughly 4.5% annual pace. As part of a $6.6 billion loan package, the International Monetary Fund got the country to raise taxes and cut subsidies—notably for electric power. But the IMF program expires this year, a key risk. Still, the IMF noted in a recent review that Pakistan has shored up foreign reserves thanks to low oil prices, and it praised the creation of an independent monetary-policy committee. It also acknowledged that restructuring or privatizing ailing public enterprises has been disappointingly slow.
The key to long-term growth is Pakistan’s population. At roughly 190 million, it is the sixth largest in the world. Importantly, more than half of Pakistan’s citizens are under age 25, eager for education and interested in success, says Najeeb Ghauri, CEO and founder ofNetSol Technologies (ticker: NTWK), a California software company with a Pakistani campus.
“Contrary to the negative headlines,” says T. Rowe Price frontier markets portfolio manager Oliver Bell, “Pakistan has been slowly progressing on a much more stable path; we saw successful elections and the peaceful handover of power in 2013, and the new government has shown a commitment to adhere to the IMF program.” Bell adds that Pakistan’s aggressive privatization of companies “is creating liquidity and buying opportunities” in its stock market.
ONE OF THE BEST WAYS for retail investors to access this growth—a decidedly long-term bet—is the Global X MSCI Pakistan exchange-traded fund (PAK). The year-old ETF’s total return is negative 11% since inception. But that’s better than the iShares MSCI Frontier Market ETF (FM) and the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM), which each fell 18%.
Financials account for a third of the Pakistan ETF, and Bell likes banks. A favorite is Pakistan’s largest lender, Habib Bank (HBL.Pakistan), which the government took public last year. A high percentage of Pakistan’s population don’t use banks, and Bell expects expanded loan growth. China’s investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure, especially power plants, should boost long-term growth. Earnings on Friday beat analysts’ expectations. Bell thinks the bank’s return on equity can expand to 25% in 2018 from 17% in 2013. But he doesn’t think the stock is expensive, at 1.4 times book value, given its growth and 8% yield.
Of note: Habib Bank’s New York branch got an enforcement order from U.S. authorities in December, after they found repeated “significant breakdowns” in anti-money-laundering efforts.
Multinationals are taking notice of Pakistan’s strides. Coca-Cola (KO) is expanding its Pakistan operations, which boasted double-digit growth in the latest quarter, says Curt Ferguson, president of Coke’s Middle East and North Africa business. He told Barron’slast week, “Pakistan is growing again. We just made a huge investment near the India-Pakistan border, in Mutan (Multan), which has a gorgeous new airport. Pakistan would really surprise people.”
Perhaps, but not everyone wants the risk. Paul Christopher, global strategist at Wells Fargo, told us that Pakistan is among the frontier markets whose volatility makes it “not investible.”
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