THE BRICs are falling off the investment map. The term for Brazil, Russia, India and China, where stocks gained 424 per cent during the decade ended 2010, appeared in the fewest news stories last month since November 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
BRIC searches on Google's website fell to a seven-year low in December, while mutual funds that invest in the biggest emerging markets had outflows in 46 of the past 47 weeks.
Investor euphoria has turned into apathy after the four economies grew at the slowest pace since 2009 and the MSCI BRIC Index trailed world markets for a third straight year. The man who came up with the BRIC moniker – Goldman Sachs Jim O'Neill – announced his retirement last week.
"It looks like investors, certainly the trend-following types, have lost interest," said O'Neill, who will step down as chairman of Goldman Sachs' asset management unit this year after about 18 years at the New York-based bank.
O'Neill, 55, introduced the BRIC concept in a 2001 research report predicting that the countries' share of the global economy would increase. His colleagues at Goldman Sachs estimated two years later that the nations may join the US and Japan as the world's biggest economies by 2050.
The bullish outlook proved prescient as the BRIC countries grew at an average annual pace of 6.6 per cent from 2001 to 2010, almost twice as fast as the global economy, according to the International Monetary Fund in Washington. According to IMF estimates in October last, China is now the world's second largest economy in dollar terms, while Brazil is seventh, Russia is ninth and India is tenth.
Goldman Sachs' prediction helped unleash a flood of money into the BRIC countries. Investors poured about $15bn into mutual funds that buy stocks in all four nations, along with another $52bn into funds dedicated to individual members of the group, from 2001 through 2010, according to research firm EPFR Global.
The name stuck. Investors "wanted something that was simple" said Christopher Palmer, who oversees about $2.5bn as the London-based director of global emerging markets at Henderson Global Investors. "BRIC is a nice marketing concept, and it sounds quite solid, like a brick."
The MSCI BRIC index's 424 per cent return through 2010, including dividends, compares with a 44 per cent gain for the MSCI All-Country World Index and 350 per cent for the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. That means $10,000 invested in the BRICs grew to about $52,400 during the period.
Gross domestic product in the BRICs probably increased 4.2 per cent on average in 2012, versus 3.2 per cent for the world economy, according to the IMF. The 1 percentage point gap would be the smallest since 1998.
The MSCI BRIC index is up about 2.2 per cent this year, versus a 4.3 per cent increase in the global index.
Brazil, Russia, India, China and BRIC funds have recorded combined outflows of about $8.3bn since 2010 even as those investing in global emerging markets had inflows of $70bn, EPFR Global data show.
O'Neill disagrees. Fading interest in the countries is a contrarian indicator that may foreshadow world-beating equity returns this year as China's economy recovers, he said. "It's my hunch, because of China, that the BRIC index will outperform."
The Shanghai Composite Index has climbed 6.6 per cent this year as consumer purchases support a rebound in economic growth.
China's expansion accelerated in the fourth quarter for the first time in two years, with GDP increasing 7.9 per cent from a year earlier, according to the National Bureau of Statistics in Beijing. Retail sales climbed 15.2 per cent in December.
Low valuations are another reason to be bullish, O'Neill said. The MSCI BRIC index trades for 10 times reported earnings, versus 16 times for the MSCI All-Country gauge. The 36 per cent discount for the BRIC measure compares with an average gap of 24 per cent since Bloomberg began compiling data in July 2009.
"They trade at a significant discount, certainly to their own past," O'Neill said. "The key part of the BRIC story, the C, which is the same size as the other three put together, seems to me to be even stronger than ever."
The BRICs risk undoing their achievements of the past decade by increasing the state's role in markets, Nouriel Roubini, the chairman of Roubini Global Economics in New York who predicted the 2008 financial crisis, said in an interview at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos in January. The countries "have been hyped up too much", Roubini said.
In Brazil, the government fixes energy prices to rein in inflation, which has exceeded the 4.5 per cent midpoint of the central bank's target range for over two years. That means fuel imports have curbed earnings at Petroleo Brasileiro, Brazil's state-run oil producer, as it pays more for petrol and diesel bought abroad than it charges distributors.
While the government authorised a fuel price increase on January 29, the adjustment trailed analysts' estimates and voting shares of the Rio de Janeiro-based company dropped 5.1 per cent the next day. Petrobras tumbled 8.3 per cent on February 5 to the lowest level since August 2005 after saying that it will reduce dividends.
Brazil's benchmark Bovespa Index is down 16 per cent since the end of 2010. The BSE India Sensitive Index has gained 0.8 per cent in 2013 and Russia's Micex Index has increased 3.5 per cent.
The number of news stories containing the term BRIC fell to 317 in January, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from more than 100 news sources. That's 87 per cent less than the record high in March 2011, a week before the MSCI BRIC index reached an almost three-year peak.
Google had the fewest queries on BRIC in December since February 2005.
While the level of interest has since increased, it's still about 17 per cent lower than a year ago and 48 per cent below the June 2009 high, according to Google's Trends website.
The Shanghai Composite's 30-day correlation with the MSCI gauge dropped to 0.2 on January 9, the lowest level since January 2012, from as high as 0.8 in September, data compiled by Bloomberg show. A reading of one means two markets move in tandem, while a level of minus-one means they move in opposite directions.
The relationship for India's Sensex declined to the lowest level since November 2009 this month, while the reading for Russia's Micex reached a four-year nadir. The Bovespa in Sao Paulo had the weakest correlation since March 2008 in October.
"People aren't talking about them as a group any more, but talking about the countries separately," Timothy Ghriskey, the chief investment officer at Solaris Group in New York, which manages about $2bn and has equity holdings in India and Brazil, said. "Each one has a different investment climate, different issues."