Baron Emerging Markets Fund (BEXFX)

Portfolio Management

Michael Kass

Fund Manager since 2010

View All Commentary by Michael

Fund Description

Baron Emerging Markets Fund invests primarily in growth companies in developing countries.


Portfolio Commentary

Retail Performance

Review and Outlook (for quarter ended 12/31/2015)

After a marked decline in the third quarter, the fourth quarter of 2015 began with a powerful rally in global equities, commodities, and credit. Coincident with the Fed's deferral of an October rate hike, indicators suggested improving economic growth, global trade, and stabilization in China and of the RMB. Such stability inspired the Fed to signal the start of a rate hike cycle in December, which seemed to act as an immediate financial tightening and stunt the rally. An increase in terrorism and rising Middle East tensions exacerbated the mid-quarter rise in risk premium, leading global equities to fade into year end.

For the year ahead, we expect further volatility. In our view, the key variables are the Chinese economy, policy and the RMB; the slope and duration of Fed tightening; the outlook for commodity and oil prices; and the geopolitical implications of increasing Mideast hostilities. We see the first two variables as directly related; any increase in the market-discounted rate of Fed tightening will force a more aggressive policy response from China and increase the risk of a more material RMB depreciation. This phenomenon was on display through the second half of 2015. RMB depreciation acts as a safety valve for China and deflects the deflationary impulse being absorbed back at the rest of the world, weighing on global prices and asset values, particularly in the most vulnerable and leveraged countries and sectors. In the zero-sum world of subpar global economic growth and credit saturation, we should continue to expect the "whac-a-(deflation)mole" policy response initiated by the Fed in 2009 and carried on by the Bank of Japan and the ECB; in our view, it is now simply China's "whac."

The silver lining is that we believe we are in the advanced stages of a bear market in the emerging markets, where much of the damage has already been done. We envision three potential pathways to a major inflection point, which, for the first time in several years, we now see emerging on the horizon. The first two pathways, most likely triggered by an international credit event or RMB depreciation, would likely involve a final, ninth-inning decline, followed by an abrupt and sustainable recovery as the Fed reverses course. We believe the 1998 credit crisis and/or Euro-periphery crisis of 2012 serve as reasonable proxies for this scenario. In the third, and preferred, pathway, global growth and leading indicators would continue to improve upon what appeared a bottoming in early October; in effect, the Fed would now be appropriately hiking into a global re-acceleration, reducing the odds of a credit incident, and suggesting a re-acceleration of corporate earnings growth.

We believe RMB depreciation has emerged as a key catalyst, as China’s ability to underpin the RMB appears suspect following the brief period of stabilization that preceded November’s historic inclusion into the IMF basket of global reserve currencies. While we remain comfortable that our positioning is well aligned given the existing environment, we believe substantial investment opportunities lie ahead and are identifying specific candidates as well as a strategy to take advantage.

Top Contributors/Detractors to Performance

Contributors (for quarter ended 12/31/2015)
  • TAL Education Group was a leading contributor to performance for Q4. The education services provider reported favorable earnings during Q4, as enrollment growth reached 50% and revenue and operating earnings exceeded Street expectations. We continue to believe the investments TAL Education is currently making suggest sustainable long-term growth with attractive margins.

  • The share price of International, Ltd., China’s leading online travel agency, rose in Q4. With its recent acquisition of a stake in number two player Qunar, Ctrip has consolidated its leadership position. Industry observers predict China will become the world’s largest travel market in two years. With less than 20% of travel bookings in China currently online, we think Ctrip’s dominant online market share positions it to benefit as consumers shift to online bookings.

  • Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., is the largest e-commerce company in China. It owns and operates the two largest online shopping platforms in China, Taobao and Tmall. It also participates in the profits of Ant Financial, which owns Alipay, the largest third party online payment provider in China. Shares of Alibaba increased in Q4 on positive momentum in monetization of mobile customers, the increasing majority of its customer base. We expect this mobile transition will be completed in 2016, and believe shares of Alibaba stand to benefit accordingly.

Detractors (for quarter ended 12/31/2015)
  • Shares of Steinhoff International Holdings Ltd. declined in Q4. The company is the second largest European furniture retailer (behind Ikea) with a vertically integrated business model. The key driver of weak performance was a broad market sell-off in South Africa, which was compounded by a devaluation of the South African Rand. We believe the company's business fundamentals remain attractive. Steinhoff has a strong management team and is a beneficiary of accelerated industry consolidation.

  • Makalot Industrial Co., Ltd. is a Taiwanese apparel manufacturer and supplier to fast fashion and sportswear brands. Makalot has benefited from the two biggest trends in apparel – growth in functional fabrics and fast fashion – as well as a currency tailwind and possible tariff reduction. While share price has been strong most of the year, it gave away some gains in Q4 as sportswear customers had a tough quarter due to unseasonably warm weather and increased inventory. We think this setback is temporary and long-term growth prospects are solid.

  • Despite strong earnings, India battery manufacturer Amara Raja Batteries Ltd. detracted due to competitive concerns. After years of strong sales in the auto aftermarket channel, Amara Raja is now selling into industrial markets rebounding with the robust Indian economy. These markets can be volatile and competitive, but we believe they can offer meaningful incremental operating leverage. Amara Raja has an excellent distribution network to compete with the incumbent, and we think it will produce strong cash flow once its expansion is complete.

Quarterly Attribution Analysis (for quarter ended 12/31/2015)

The Quarterly Attribution Analysis for period ending December 31, 2015 is not yet available

Yearly Attribution Analysis (for year ended 12/31/2015)

The Yearly Attribution Analysis for period ending December 31, 2015 is not yet available

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The prospective performance of the companies discussed herein is based on our internal analysis and reflect our opinions only. We cannot promise future returns and our opinions are a reflection of our best judgement at the time of publication. Our views are not intended as recommendations or investment advice to any person and are subject to change at any time based on market and other conditions and Baron has no obligation to update them. Investing in the stock market is always risky. Current and future portfolio holdings in the Fund are subject to risk.

Source: FactSet PA.