Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Emerging Market an Elusive Concept

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- What do South Africa, Russia, Mexico and China have in common?

Not much, really. Yet all four are lumped into an economic category known as emerging markets -- one that casts its net so wide that its relevance is being questioned.

"This concept of an emerging or a developing market is mainly a political tag or just a name for non-rich economies," said Dawie Roodt, an economist with PLJ Financial Services in South Africa.

"It's really everybody except the rich economies so it's really not saying anything. It's far too big," he said.

The term's worth as a concept is not simply academic.

It is used as a guide by fund managers and others who channel tens of billions of dollars into economies -- and out of them again, sometimes at the press of a button.

Nor has much thought been given to the criteria that would signal an economy had emerged from its stifling cocoon and sprouted the wings of a developed one.

Making it out of this grouping would signal that a country was a less risky place for investment. This in turn could translate into increased capital inflows and reduced borrowing costs.

To date, no economy seems to have made the grade, suggesting that perhaps it is time to establish some goal posts -- though the pick of the crop are often singled out.

So, what is an emerging market? At its broadest, it refers to basically every country outside of the developed world encompassing Western Europe, the United States and Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

One glossary says it is: "A term used to describe the financial markets of developing countries. Definitions vary of which countries are emerging and which are not."

There are some common countries on the major emerging markets indices, including Brazil, Hungary and Thailand.

The Economist magazine has regular updates on indicators from around two dozen emerging market economies.

Countries with unsophisticated, illiquid or virtually no financial markets such as Cambodia and Burundi are not found on these indices, but are still considered by some to be in the "emerging" group for want of an alternative classification.

"There are a lot of developing countries that are strictly pre-emerging markets rather than emerging markets," said Razia Khan, an economist with Standard Chartered in London.

One rough rule of thumb could be to look at countries whose government debt has been given a credit rating by the big rating agencies.

But in Africa, that group includes Gambia, Lesotho, Egypt, South Africa and Botswana, countries with hugely different levels of development.

The "market" in the term also seems, in many cases, to state the obvious.

Fifteen years ago the very visible hand of the state was firmly on the tiller of Eastern Europe's economies, but most today are clearly market-oriented, selling off state assets while maintaining low budget deficits.

Their size may mean they are still "emerging," but few would doubt that they were now "markets." Billions and billions of dollars of foreign direct investment have poured into the region.