Introducing the Baseline Profitability Index

Want to invest overseas? Start here.

Once upon a time, Americans invested about 90 percent of their money at home. Now, individuals and businesses in the United States and many other countries have tempting opportunities to dip into markets around the world. But how much of the returns do they get to keep, and how much can they actually bring home? These two questions don't receive enough attention, especially among investors chasing high returns in emerging markets. Corruption, conflict, crises, and more can eat away at the bottom line. The Baseline Profitability Index (BPI), published here for the first time, takes several of these into account to suggest where investors should really put their hard-earned cash.

The inaugural version of the index includes 102 countries across six continents and redraws the typical economic map of the world. China, for instance, is well known for its rapid economic growth, but the difficulties of doing business there can cut into a foreign investor's return; it ranks 21st in the BPI. Chile may not be such a big or fast-growing market, but its friendly climate for business can make it a more attractive place to invest; it ranks eighth.

Hong Kong and Singapore, which regularly top indexes like the World Bank's Doing Business rankings and the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, also take two of the first four spots in the BPI. But three of the top 10 are African countries -- Botswana, Rwanda, and Ghana -- where high returns are accessible and, to a great degree, retrievable. India is the only BRIC country in the top spots; Brazil and Russia languish near the bottom. And Eastern Europe, though perhaps a less glamorous destination to investors, compares favorably to the tigers of East Asia.

So how does the BPI work?

Three factors will affect the ultimate success of a foreign investment: how much an asset's value grows, the preservation of that value while the asset is owned, and the ease of bringing home the proceeds from selling the asset. Each of these factors requires a different kind of assessment. It's not enough to worry only about rates of return, corruption, political stability, investor protection, or exchange rates alone; as I've written before, you have to worry about all of them.

Until now, however, no index has combined these factors into a summary statistic that conveys a country's basic attractiveness for investment. Even as a first attempt, the BPI sends a clear message: Look seriously at frontier markets that offer high returns and improving economic institutions. Six of the top 20 countries in the BPI are African. With the World Economic Forum on Africa taking place this week, the time is ripe for investors to shift their focus.

The calculation of the BPI is, of course, an imperfect exercise fraught with assumptions. For example, how does a survey about perceptions of corruption translate into likelihoods of having to pay bribes, and how big might those bribes be? The more country-specific assumptions you make to answer questions like these, the less comparable countries will be within the confines of an index. Also, an asset's returns may depend on tax treaties between the investor's home country and the country where the investment is based; there are so many possible permutations of this pairing that I've decided to leave taxes out of my calculations.

The scenario envisioned by the BPI is of a five-year investment by a business or a saver -- say, a private equity fund buying a stake in a foreign company. The BPI compares how local policies and conditions would affect the same investment in different countries. In other words, it asks how the value of the principal and the return will change depending only on where the investment is made. It also assumes that the investor reinvests the asset's returns during the five-year period, then sells the asset and brings all the money home.

In calculating the BPI, the first factor to consider is the growth of the asset's value. The BPI starts with the International Monetary Fund's forecasts for five years of economic growth, adjusted for inflation. Implicitly, the BPI assumes that when an economy grows, a given chunk of that economy expands in equal proportion. Then the BPI discounts the asset's value by the risk of a financial crisis or security issues that could hamper the investment. In other words, a default on sovereign debt or a civil war could derail economic growth enough to put a dent in the value of the investment's principal and return. These risks are measured using Standard and Poor's sovereign debt ratings and the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators for political stability and rule of law.

Next, local factors may erode the profit after it appears. These include the payment of bribes and kickbacks (judged by Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index), expropriation or nationalization of the asset by the local government (from the International Property Rights Index published by the Property Rights Alliance and Americans for Tax Reform), and self-dealing by local managers. This last risk involves the possibility that employees or executives will eat away at profits by giving themselves perks, excessive pay packages, or other sweetheart deals. The BPI assesses it using an index of investor protection compiled by the World Bank with methodology proposed by Simeon Djankov, Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, and Andrei Shleifer.

Finally, there is the question of how much the profits will be worth once they return to the investor. The BPI first asks whether the target country for the investment has any capital controls in place, since these may restrict the repatriation of profits; the metric here is Menzie Chinn and Hiro Ito's index of financial openness. The last issue is whether exchange rates will change enough over five years to affect the value of the investment. For this, I created an algorithm that simulates long-term convergence of purchasing power parity -- essentially, the notion that as poorer countries become richer, their currencies will gain value in real terms. This doesn't happen overnight, of course, but during a period of several years it may begin to occur.

The countries that score poorly in the BPI do so for a variety of different reasons, but there are some common threads. Angola and Venezuela, for instance, are two resource-driven economies with the potential to grow very quickly. Alas, a raft of issues erodes the attractiveness of investing in either of them. Angola has strict capital controls that could affect the repatriation of profits, and Venezuela's currency might actually depreciate in real terms. Both countries fall short in the protection of investors from the use of unscrupulous tactics by government and private partners, and corruption is rampant. Lebanon and Pakistan aren't much better: Security, capital controls, and expropriation are all of acute concern.

The BPI is not the last word on where to invest, but it does offer simple summary statistics to investors who don't have time to research all of these 102 markets in depth. In the past, organizations such as the California Public Employees Retirement System provided multi-factor assessments of foreign markets, and these were useful public goods for the investing community. I hope the BPI will follow in that admirable tradition. For inquiries about the BPI, which can be found on the following page, please contact me here.

About the Index

The Baseline Profitability Index (BPI) ranks countries by their overall attractiveness as targets for a generic foreign investment. The index values offer a better idea of how far countries are from each other. In addition to the overall rank, the countries are ranked by the three main components of the index: asset growth, preservation of value, and repatriation of capital. Note that countries whose currencies are expected to appreciate in real terms will rank higher for repatriation of capital, all other things equal. The time horizon envisioned for investment is five years.

BPI RankCountryBPI ValueAsset GrowthPreservation
of Value
of capital
1 Hong Kong 1.23 3 4 36
2 Botswana 1.22 11 29 10
3 Taiwan 1.21 9 20 34
4 Singapore 1.19 2 2 72
5 Rwanda 1.18 17 35 15
6 Qatar 1.16 1 32 77
7 India 1.14 43 56 5
8 Chile 1.14 4 19 70
9 Panama 1.13 8 59 27
10 Ghana 1.13 21 48 24
11 Malaysia 1.13 15 14 55
12 Estonia 1.10 22 28 44
13 Sri Lanka 1.10 33 62 11
14 Tunisia 1.09 55 49 13
15 Uganda 1.09 56 85 1
16 Lithuania 1.09 30 41 35
17 Burkina Faso 1.09 37 80 12
18 Poland 1.09 34 33 38
19 Korea 1.07 28 34 53
20 Bulgaria 1.07 65 51 3
21 China 1.07 12 66 65
22 Czech Republic 1.07 38 47 32
23 Mozambique 1.07 6 73 40
24 Vietnam 1.07 41 97 6
25 United States 1.06 19 5 78
26 Uruguay 1.06 16 39 71
27 Latvia 1.05 27 50 49
28 Slovakia 1.05 35 54 48
29 Costa Rica 1.05 26 75 50
30 Malta 1.05 39 30 51
31 Peru 1.05 49 43 21
32 Oman 1.04 29 46 59
33 New Zealand 1.04 7 1 93
34 Ireland 1.02 20 6 83
35 Morocco 1.02 50 69 46
36 Zambia 1.02 5 76 61
37 Hungary 1.02 67 52 29
38 Macedonia 1.01 82 57 8
39 Saudi Arabia 1.01 51 22 68
40 Canada 1.01 18 3 89
41 South Africa 1.01 59 16 64
42 Benin 1.00 66 86 25
43 Egypt 1.00 87 71 4
44 Bahrain 1.00 60 38 57
45 Sweden 0.99 14 11 96
46 Thailand 0.99 69 36 42
47 Romania 0.99 74 53 23
48 Netherlands 0.99 36 24 82
49 United Kingdom 0.99 44 7 79
50 Finland 0.99 23 15 91
51 Austria 0.98 31 27 85
52 Georgia 0.98 47 63 45
53 Germany 0.98 42 23 81
54 Jordan 0.98 58 64 56
55 Iceland 0.97 25 18 98
56 Israel 0.97 62 9 76
57 Bolivia 0.96 79 95 17
58 Senegal 0.96 64 98 33
59 Serbia 0.96 91 82 2
60 Turkey 0.96 68 55 60
61 Bangladesh 0.96 70 91 7
62 Australia 0.95 10 17 101
63 Dominican Republic 0.95 72 79 22
64 Portugal 0.95 71 25 62
65 Belgium 0.95 48 13 87
66 El Salvador 0.95 96 94 9
67 Kenya 0.95 81 83 19
68 Indonesia 0.95 52 70 66
69 Slovenia 0.94 57 21 80
70 Cameroon 0.94 73 96 30
71 France 0.94 53 26 88
72 Denmark 0.93 32 10 99
73 Philippines 0.93 75 84 52
74 Croatia 0.93 78 74 54
75 Mexico 0.93 86 65 41
76 Japan 0.93 46 12 94
77 Norway 0.93 13 8 102
78 Albania 0.92 92 67 14
79 Colombia 0.92 80 31 67
80 Spain 0.92 77 37 75
81 Honduras 0.92 93 100 28
82 Guatemala 0.91 94 90 26
83 Paraguay 0.91 63 88 43
84 Kuwait 0.91 45 40 92
85 Ecuador 0.91 97 93 20
86 Switzerland 0.91 24 45 100
87 Bosnia and Herzegovina 0.90 98 81 18
88 Jamaica 0.90 99 59 31
89 Kazakhstan 0.90 40 61 86
90 Trinidad and Tobago 0.90 76 44 74
91 Brazil 0.89 54 58 90
92 Argentina 0.89 85 78 58
93 Azerbaijan 0.88 83 72 63
94 Greece 0.86 89 68 69
95 Nigeria 0.86 88 92 47
96 Italy 0.86 84 42 84
97 Ukraine 0.85 95 99 39
98 Russia 0.84 90 87 73
99 Lebanon 0.84 100 89 37
100 Pakistan 0.83 102 77 16
101 Angola 0.77 61 101 95
102 Venezuela 0.64 101 102 97

China Photos/Getty Images

Daniel Altman

8 Myths About India's Growth

On closer inspection, the Indian miracle turns out to be pretty ordinary after all.

Is India different? Last month, India's finance minister confidently declared that nothing could stop his country from becoming the world's third-biggest economy. He may well be right, but size alone does not make India a special case. Its growth has been fast, but it is no trailblazer.

Here are eight popular myths about India's growth, all of which are easily debunked:

India has outperformed other emerging economies in the recent past. In the two decades from 1992 to 2012, average living standards in India did rise faster than those in most countries that started from a similar level. In fact, only nine other countries in the world saw living standards, measured by purchasing power, climb more quickly: Albania, Armenia, Bhutan, China, Equatorial Guinea, the Maldives, Mozambique, Sudan, and Vietnam. Faster growth was to be expected in countries that started out with lower living standards than India's, but several of these -- Albania, Armenia, Bhutan, China, and the Maldives -- actually started out with higher purchasing power. Relative to them, India underperformed.

India will grow faster than other emerging economies in the future. For the next five years, the International Monetary Fund projects that living standards in several countries will grow faster than India's. Among them, again, are countries with a higher starting position: Bhutan, China, the Republic of Congo, and Georgia. India will likely outperform many other economies that have similar living standards today, but it hasn't unlocked every secret of economic growth just yet.

When India finally opens its markets to trade, exports will supercharge its growth. India is not the easiest place to be an exporter, but it's hardly the most difficult, either. In terms of both time and money needed to ship a container of goods, India ranks in the middle of the pack, according to the World Bank. If anything, exports could become more expensive for Indian companies if the United States and others forced India to drop some of its remaining export subsidies. In 2011, India's exports and imports represented 54 percent of GDP, about the same share as in China. It's unlikely that exports will change the growth story anytime soon.

The urbanization of India's huge rural population will lead to unprecedented increases in living standards. Urbanization has been a critical ingredient to economic growth for many countries. Simply putting labor next to capital by attracting people into cities tends to raise workers' productivity and, eventually, their incomes. More than two thirds of India's population still lives in rural areas, compared with less than half in China. But India is not under-urbanized compared to other poor countries; if you look at how living standards compare to urbanization among all the world's countries, India sits right on the best-fit line. There's no reason to believe that urbanization will help India's growth more than it has for any other country.

India's service industry will provide a huge boost to employment. India's legions of call-center staffers, software developers, and information-technology experts have led some analysts to proclaim a "service revolution" that will provide an alternative to manufacturing as a path to prosperity. Yet economists suggest that India's service sector has merely caught up to international norms, and there is no particular reason to believe that it will take over a much bigger share of the economy as the country grows. The literacy rate in China is much higher, and it's not clear that India even has more English speakers. Moreover, as wages rise in China, the opportunity for India to raise living standards through manufacturing -- not services -- will expand enormously.

India has more mathematical, scientific, and engineering geniuses to drive its economic growth than other countries. In absolute terms, this may be true; after all, India has a population of more than 1.2 billion people. But a population this big will have more people at either end of the distribution of economic ability: more geniuses, and more people with serious challenges to their cognitive capacity. The question is whether the extra geniuses will have a positive effect that is disproportionate to India's population. If this were true more generally, populous countries like Germany and France would have higher living standards than smaller countries with similar advantages, like Switzerland and Denmark. Clearly, this is not the case.

As a democracy, India is more conducive to free-market capitalism. The links between democracy and economic growth have interested economists for decades, and the rise of state capitalism in non-democratic countries like China and Saudi Arabia has posed an ideological challenge. India is often touted as the world's biggest democracy; the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators rank it in the 59th percentile for "voice and accountability" of citizens and government, just shy of several members of the European Union. Still, India's markets are far from free. The Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom calls India "mostly unfree" with a ranking of 119 out of 177 countries, as a result of heavy government involvement in the economy, from regulatory requirements to trade barriers. It's also one of the toughest places in the world to start a business.

The British legacy of a strong legal system gives India an edge. If it does, it's not a very big edge. Geographical factors like coastline, rainfall, and temperature can explain a big share of the differences in living standards between countries today. Controlling for these factors, former British colonies tend to do better than the average among all countries. But among the former colonies, India is one of the worst performers. Indeed, its living standards are worse than you might have expected given its geography. That may be because the vast majority of India's workers operate outside the strictures and protections of the legal system, in an environment more reminiscent of London's 19th century slums than Canary Wharf.

To sum up, there's little basis for any sort of mystique surrounding India's economic growth. On its current path, India shows no obvious signs of rewriting the textbooks; on the contrary, it has confirmed much of what economists already understood about urbanization, industrialization, trade, and institutions. Don't get me wrong -- India is undoubtedly a fascinating country for many other reasons. But to an economist, it's just another poor country that happens to be very, very big.