In popular culture, sub-Saharan Africa may still conjure images of conflict and poverty, yet investors from Wall Street to Main Street are taking a decidedly rosier view. Africa's surging growth is now well known -- the region is home to six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world. "Never in the half-century since it won independence from the colonial powers has Africa been in such good shape," gushed a recent special report in The Economist.
If you had jumped on this bandwagon in 2012, you too would be an Afro-optimist. Investors may be thrilled that the S&P 500 index rose a cheery 13 percent in 2012 and is up another 8 percent this year -- but this pales next to Nigeria's stock market, which spiked 35 percent last year and is up another 18 percent so far this year. Ghana (up 24 percent), Uganda (up 39 percent), and Kenya (up 30 percent) also posted strong showings in 2012, and even longtime economic basket case Zimbabwe is up 20 percent in 2013.
But potentially huge returns are only part of the reason to invest in one of sub-Saharan Africa's budding equity markets. The real play is diversification. As we discovered in our recently released study for the Center for Global Development, African bourses are among the last of a rare and endangered species -- stock markets that remain uncorrelated with the major global exchanges.
Diversification is a basic principle of asset allocation. Few investors want to put all their eggs in one basket, thus risking losing it all in the event of a downturn. By spreading around one's assets in markets that do not move in a synchronized manner, investment risks can be dramatically lessened. However, all this depends on finding markets that move independently from each other.
But an irony of globalization is that as financial markets integrate, they respond to similar events -- and thus the benefits of spreading one's assets across different markets shrinks. These linkages can lead to contagion in times of crisis -- such as Mexico in 1994 or Thailand in 1998 -- when panic in one country can plunge markets into crisis on the other side of the globe.
The old exotic is already the new normal: Traditional emerging markets, like those in Latin America or Asia, are even more strongly correlated with the United States than we expected. The main U.S. and European stock market indices monthly correlation is about 0.9 (with 1 meaning they move in perfect sync), and Latin America is not far behind. The correlation of the S&P 500 with a weighted average of Latin American stock indices reached 0.86 in 2010, up from a meager 0.15 in 1992. That means, when the Dow moves on Tuesday, it's highly likely that markets in Sao Paolo and Beijing will follow suit.