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2011's Top Risks: Some bad bets in the world's emerging markets

By Ian Bremmer and David Gordon

A wave of money flooding into emerging markets has lifted many boats. But when the tide goes out, certain countries -- and the investors betting on them -- may be left high and dry.

There are very different risk profiles among emerging markets, and even beyond the increasingly turbulent Middle East, not all are going to perform well this year. The risks facing these countries include negative economic policies (fiscal imbalances in some, premature austerity in others) as well as more purely political risks (including contentious elections and political violence). As these problems play out in 2011, they will contribute to poor investment outcomes, ranging from adverse regulatory changes to asset bubbles to weak stock market performance.

The most notable underperformers are Argentina, Hungary, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

In Argentina, investors appear overly optimistic that policy will improve -- either as a result of President Cristina Kirchner losing her re-election bid or a change in direction if she wins. In fact, she is likely to win, but policy is unlikely to change, leading to higher inflation and more populism.

In Hungary, markets have recently turned south, but still do not seem to be pricing in the scope of the potential impending crisis as the Fidesz government attacks asset holders across a range of classes. Hungary may once again have to turn to the IMF, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban has walked himself into a political corner with his vitriolic anti-IMF rhetoric.

Investors in Peru underestimate the potential for populist candidate Ollanta Humala to make a serious run at the presidency. He's a decided underdog to be sure, but it's too early to write him off. Even if the more market-friendly Alejandro Toledo wins, we're likely to see more resource nationalism -- and mild capital controls if the Peruvian sol continues to appreciate.

Despite its aspirations, South Africa won't improve its investment climate in 2011. Growing political pressure on President Jacob Zuma ahead of municipal elections in April-May and the ruling party leadership contest in 2012 will increase the risk of government inertia and erratic policy-making and reinforce the African National Congress (ANC)'s "single party rule" mentality."

Many people have become overconfident that the end of Sri Lanka's civil war will usher in a period of political stability. But President Mahinda Rajapakse, insecure in his position, is centralizing power while failing to address the country's structural challenges. That's a recipe for resurgent political and ethnic tension, and it will dampen growth prospects.

Finally, 2011 promises to be a year of political tension in Thailand, especially given the king's failing health. Allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra remain popular in much of the country, raising the risks of a violent, flawed election or a military intervention. There's real potential for serious and sustained unrest involving Thailand's incumbent elites and the pro-Thaksin "red-shirt" movement.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group. David Gordon is the firm's head of research.

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