This has sparked renewed debate about how we should be saving for retirement and what we should be investing in.
A recent report by pension consultant Dr Ros Altmann -commissioned by MetLife – argued that it is finally time to do away with the assumption that investing in shares always pays off in the long term. She points out that gilts have comfortably outperformed shares over the last 10 years and that many savers retiring now have found that this gamble in shares has failed to pay off.
But for Bryan Collings, manager of the Ignis Hexam emerging markets fund, the crisis helps demonstrate the dangers of not investing in emerging markets – widely perceived as taking more of a gamble – over the long term.
The potential of emerging markets is well known – few experts would dispute that the long-term case for investing in countries such as India and China stacks up.
The long-term track record is also impressive. The MSCI emerging markets Index has risen by 553 per cent over the last 20 years compared with a 328 per cent rise for the FTSE All Share.
For an industry which extols the long-term benefits of investing, perhaps it is surprising that emerging markets have been largely ignored by the pension sector.
UK investors typically hold no more than 5 per cent in the sector. Most savers are in default balanced managed funds – which tend to err on the side of caution – and with- profits funds – which often shy away from shares altogether.
Savers in Aegon’s cautious managed fund will have no more than 1 per cent exposure to emerging markets. This rises to 3 per cent for balanced and 5 per cent for adventurous. The figures are almost identical at Scottish Widows and Prudential. In fact, both Aegon and Prudential say they have decreased their exposure recently.
AJ Bell marketing director Billy Mackay says: “With a wide range of individuals in the scheme, these funds tend to be vanilla funds that are cautious in nature.”
Of course, this growth has also been accompanied with higher volatility – which has deterred pension savers and providers.
The emerging markets index has soared by 58 per cent since the October 2008 low which was a 53 per cent drop from the previous peak in October 2007.
But Collings argues this volatility is caused by short term factors – and is not a true reflection of the underlying risks.
He points out that even at the height of the sub-prime crisis, the US indices was still exhibiting the lowest levels of volatility relative to other global markets. This, he says, undermines the assumption that low risk and low volatility go hand in hand.
Collings says: “The majority of UK investors only have approximately 5 per cent exposure to emerging markets within their portfolios. It makes no sense to have so low an allocation to such a large and important asset class. Given the headwinds facing advanced economies, it is more important than ever for investors to have sufficient exposure to the growth potential of emerging markets.”
Hargreaves Lansdown believes a cautious investor should have up to 5 per cent invested in emerging markets, balanced 10 per cent to 20 per cent and adventurous 20 per cent to 30 per cent.
HL’s Danny Cox says: “The case for emerging markets for pension funds is compelling. The growth potential in the developing world with its accompanying volatility is ideal for long-term regular savers. They can use this volatility to their advantage with pound-cost averaging.”
Emerging market funds are now back in the top 10 of the most popular funds sold through Hargreaves Lansdown’s Vantage platform and Cox says: “Investors are generally cautious of the stockmarket at the moment but investors who take an active role in their pension savings are generally increasing their exposure to emerging markets.”
Informed Choice has also been increasing clients’ exposure to emerging markets. Exposure for higher-risk investors has increased to up to 16 per cent compared with up to 11 per cent a year ago. Balanced investors are typically up to 5 per cent invested.
Joint managing director Martin Bamford says: ‘For more adventurous clients with longer to retirement, we are increasing their exposure to emerging markets.”
But he adds: “It is also about starting to save earlier and saving more. Investing more in emerging markets in isolation is just likely to give you more sleepless nights.”
Perhaps the reluctance of insurance companies to increase exposure is understandable. By their nature, those that end up in default funds do not take advice and will naturally be alarmed by drastic fluctuations in their annual pension statements. The insurance companies do not expect this situation to change.
Scottish Widows head of pensions market development Ian Naismith says: “People should take advice before investing heavily in emerging markets. My view is still that you are taking a bit of a punt. These markets can go seriously wrong. It is hugely important that people start saving more and save earlier.”
Prudential Portfolio Management Group director Martin Brookes also considers emerging market equities have a role to play but suggests that allocation to this asset class should remain low.
He says: “It is questionable whether investments in emerging markets are a good match for largely sterling-based future spending pension liabilities that defined-contribution pension assets are attempting to cover.”
But perhaps more savers need to be given the choice. With many savers not understanding what they are investing in through balanced managed funds, many would consider emerging markets if the choice was laid out and explained to them.
Mackay says: “You can be absolutely sure that there will be many individuals investing in the dark who would be prepared to invest in emerging markets.”